NEW YORK, 8 March, 2002 - Every minute a woman dies while pregnant or giving birth, the United Nations Children's Fund said today, calling for the world to do more to prevent maternal mortality - one of the few measures of human progress to remain virtually unchanged since 1990.
"It is unacceptable that in the year 2002 so many women die in the basic act of giving life," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "As we mark International Women's Day, we must commit ourselves to addressing this fundamental aspect of the gender gap: keeping prospective mothers healthy and alive."
UNICEF said maternal mortality ratios vary widely between the developed and developing world, demonstrating that with proper attention and investment, women's lives can be preserved. While a woman who gives birth in a developing country faces as high as a 1 in 13 chance of dying, in industrialized countries that risk falls to 1 in 4,100. It is estimated that 515,000 women die every year as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. More than 99 per cent of these deaths occur in the developing world.
"There has been no significant decline in maternal mortality ratios since the early 1990s, and that's a tragedy," Bellamy said. "We know how to prevent most of these deaths. Political commitment, and the resources that follow, have just not developed on this issue. We have to see that as part of a broader tableau of discrimination against women. And it must come to an end."
Women continue to die during pregnancy and childbirth mainly because of low social status and powerlessness, UNICEF said. This limits their access to basic education and basic healthcare. Without basic education, women may remain illiterate and dependent on others for health information. Their ability to pursue information that would empower them to make the best decisions on childbearing, health and nutrition remains compromised.
A mother's death is especially harsh on her surviving children. A child's chance of survival drops dramatically when deprived of a mother's care.
UNICEF said that measures to reduce maternal mortality are straightforward. "Investment is needed, certainly," Bellamy said. "But the focus must be on the right of women to have these basic maternal health services. Governments and communities must see this not as an 'extra', but as a fundamental component of women's health, child health, and family health."
Bellamy noted that world leaders gathering for the UN Special Session on Children in May would be confronted with global figures on progress made for children and women since 1990. Maternal mortality is virtually the only area in which no progress was achieved. UNICEF said part of the problem lies in poor data collection.
UNICEF said one of most important factors in preventing deaths from complications in childbirth and pregnancy is access to emergency obstetric care. All deliveries should be overseen by skilled attendants (doctors, nurses, midwives) with access to the equipment, drugs and other supplies essential to basic obstetric care. Available data suggest just 55 per cent of all births world-wide are assisted by a skilled birth attendant.
"It is simply unjust that in a world that has entered a new millennium with unprecedented technological breakthroughs that we allow so many women to die such easily preventable deaths," Bellamy said.
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