Becoming a mother should be a moment of joy for every woman, no matter where she lives, says Dr. Natalia Kanem.

Yet, incredibly — and unacceptably — 303,000 women worldwide still die each year of complications of pregnancy or childbirth. Indeed, it's the leading cause of death for young women aged 15 - 19.

"Becoming a mother should be a moment of joy for every woman, no matter where she lives."

“For the most part, these deaths are due to preventable or treatable causes,” says Kanem, Acting Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, the UN Agency that promotes and supports reproductive health. “In parts of Africa, a woman has a 100 times greater life-time risk of dying in pregnancy and childbirth than someone in an industrialised country.” And for every woman who dies, around 20 or 30 others suffer disease, infection or injury because of their condition.


Carleta's story

For example, Carleta Francisco, 21, from Mozambique, had been suffering from the effects of fistula, a hole in the birth canal caused by prolonged, obstructed labour. Carleta's baby was delivered stillborn, but Carleta survived.

The condition caused her chronic pain and incontinence, hurt her ability to walk and meant she was stigmatised by her community. Fortunately, Carleta's fistula was finally repaired, thanks to UNFPA funding to Mozambique's Ministry of Health.


A positive change


There have been dramatic improvements in maternal health over the last 10 - 15 years, for several reasons. “Midwives are specialists in antenatal care who work at the community level and can recognise danger signs, to help manage and refer complications in pregnancy,” says Kanem. “We have greatly strengthened health systems by improving the professional training of midwives and deploying them in hard-to-reach areas.”

"Training and deploying midwives in remote, hard-to-reach areas."

One innovative training tool is the Portable Mobile Learning System, supported by UNFPA with a grant from Denmark. The system is being used to train health workers – particularly midwives – in remote rural areas so that they can then use these life-saving skills to reach marginalised populations with quality maternal and newborn health services.

Empowering women and girls to understand the dangers of too early a pregnancy, female genital mutilation and child marriage is also vital, as is giving them access to family planning.

“There's a strong correlation between giving women a choice over how frequently they want to get pregnant, how many children they want to have and safe childbirth,” says Kanem. Figures from UNFPA show that giving access to voluntary family planning to women aged 15-19, would lead to 700,000 fewer miscarriages and 5,600 fewer maternal deaths a year.


Photo credit: UNAIDS


Maternal health targets


In the year 2000, all the then 189 UN Member States signed up to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — quantified targets for tackling extreme poverty, which they aimed to achieve by 2015.

"Sadly, only nine countries managed to reduce their maternal death ratio by three-quarters."

One of these was to improve maternal health. Sadly, only nine countries managed to reduce their maternal death ratio by three-quarters, which is why the Member States have now created a Sustainable Development Agenda, with goals that include a commitment to ending all preventable newborn and child deaths and reducing the global maternal death ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030.

There is still more to do, admits Kanem; but she is optimistic that, this time, the targets can and will be achieved. “The glass is half full,” she says, highlighting the advances that have already been made. “We can end preventable maternal deaths.”


Headshot photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten