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Young child survival and development

UNICEF report calls deaths of mothers ‘an unspeakable tragedy’ for women and children

© UNICEF/HQ07-1056/Asselin
Mariama Coulibaly, 16, sits on a bed in a maternity ward in Senegal during the final stages of labour. UNICEF supports maternal and child health programmes in the region.

By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, USA, 19 September 2008 – A report released by UNICEF today reveals a shocking discrepancy between the toll that pregnancy and childbirth takes on women in the developing world compared with those in industrialized nations.

‘Progress for Children: A Report Card on Maternal Mortality’ shows that more than half a million women die unnecessarily every year due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth – and 99 per cent of those deaths occur in developing countries.

The worst regions in which to give birth are sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which together account for 84 per cent of maternal deaths. The worst country in the world for maternal mortality is Niger, where the risk of death is estimated at one in seven.

Underlying causes of maternal death
“This is an unspeakable tragedy,” said UNICEF’s Chief of Health, Dr. Peter Salama. “The causes of maternal mortality are clear, as are the means to combat them. Yet women continue to die unnecessarily.”

© UNICEF/HQ07-1505/Anita Khemka
In Nepal, a nurse-midwife checks the blood pressure of Anisha Ghimire, 26, who is waiting to go into labour. Anisha later delivered a healthy baby boy.

Women are dying because they are not getting basic health care before, during and after giving birth, the report says. Societal attitudes, particularly the low status of women, also play a significant role in hindering women from getting the care that they need.

“We need to address the fundamental, underlying causes [such as] women’s low status, increase education levels of girls and do what we can to increase women’s empowerment,” said Dr. Salama.

Scaling up health services

While there have been improvements in some countries, overall maternal mortality remains one of the most neglected areas of health care. A drastic scaling up of consistent, reliable health services is needed to reach the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal deaths by 75 per cent.

The ‘Progress for Children’ report stresses that improving women’s health is not just a moral imperative but one that make good economic sense – because children who have a healthy mother are more likely to be healthy themselves.

“We know that with women who are sick, and women who have died, the child won’t have access to crucial breast milk in the first six months of life,” said Dr. Salama. “And there’s very solid data to suggest that actual death rates are higher for children who grow up without mothers.”




16 September 2008: UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on the factors that contribute to the needless deaths of women in developing countries.
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