Risk may not be the first thing that many associate with pregnancy, often considered a joyous experience. But for too many women, especially in the developing world, pregnancy and childbirth can pose serious health risks. For some, it can even serve as a death sentence.
Around 1,000 women die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications globally every day, according to the World Health Organization. That’s one every 90 seconds. Some 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in poor countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.
The most common way to measure these deaths is the maternal mortality ratio (MMR), which is the number of maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. For women in developed countries the average is only 14 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. Compare this to developing countries, where the average MMR is 290 deaths for 100,000 births. In sub-Saharan Africa it’s even worse, at 900. The risk is highest for young women under 15, and those living in rural areas and poorer and less educated communities.
More pregnancies can also increase the chances of dying. Since those in developing countries have on average more pregnancies than women in developed countries, this adds to their lifetime risk. For example, the risk of dying in childbirth in sub-Saharan Africa is 1 in 22, while in the United States it’s 1 in 4,800.
Some of the leading causes of maternal deaths are severe bleeding, infections, eclampsia, obstructed labor and unsafe abortions. And for every woman who dies in childbirth, at least 10 more suffer serious injuries such as fistulas and tearing. But most of these deaths are avoidable, since the solutions for preventing or treating these health problems are well known. Getting adequate care before, during and after childbirth can mean the difference between life and death for a woman. As can understanding and dealing with some of the socioeconomic and cultural issues that can contribute to maternal deaths, such as lack of education and gender discrimination.
Global health care spending has long neglected maternal care though, with policy makers and politicians focused on health issues such as AIDS or malaria instead. Not enough resources are being dedicated to address the lack of medical accessibility and care for pregnant women worldwide. Americans today spend on maternal health less than one-twentieth of a percent of the amount we spend on our military. While improving maternal health may not be as cost-effective as health solutions such as vaccines, it’s our ethical duty to save mothers’ lives.
It is high time we lead a global campaign to care for the world’s mothers and mothers-to-be. We can start by demanding that our governments prioritize and provide more funding towards safe motherhood.
Lynsey Addario / VII
See more photos from Lynsey Addario's series on Maternal Mortality in Sierra Leone.
To learn more and watch additional videos visit Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide on PBS.
The World Health Organization estimates there may be as many as 50,000-100,000 new cases of fistula each year, yet the global treatment capacity is less than 20,000 cases a year. There is a large unmet need for treatment. Fistula is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. To learn more about fistulas see the facts on the Fistula Foundation website.
Check out Half the Sky Movement's partners who are working to end Maternal Mortality here
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Top left photo : Lynsey Addario / VII