That’s the probability a woman in Niger will die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. I recently learned from UNICEF’s 2005 publication, Progress for Children, that my own lifetime risk (as an American woman) of dying from pregnancy-related causes is 1 in 4,800. That sounds pretty good compared to the women in Saharan Africa, until you read on and discover that the United States has the second worst maternal mortality rate (MMR) in the industrialized world, just hovering above Estonia on the list of our planet’s 40 wealthiest nations. Ireland’s women are the safest in the world, with a MMR of 1 in 47,600.
No woman I’ve ever known has died from maternity complications. So, it’s shocking to hear that half a million women worldwide die each year from the only process that brings life into this world. Another 10 million women’s pregnancies result in injuries, infections, disease or disability that can cause lifelong suffering. 99% of those women live in developing countries. Tragically, nearly all of these deaths and injuries are easily preventable or avoidable. That’s why UNICEF calls maternal mortality a litmus test for health systems. So why aren’t more moms’ lives saved? UNICEF responds, “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that [this has] remained unaddressed for so long due to women’s disadvantaged social, political and economic status in many societies.” To heal this problem we must not only address medical training and infrastructure, we must address issues of gender and social norms. An educated and empowered woman is less likely to die during childbirth.