Skip to main content

Too many mothers still dying

By Babatunde Osotimehin, Special to CNN
July 11, 2012 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
A newborn in Mall, India, last October. There are 56,000 maternal deaths in India each year.
A newborn in Mall, India, last October. There are 56,000 maternal deaths in India each year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Babatunde Osotimehin: Maternal deaths worldwide have dropped by half over past 20 years
  • But every day 800 women still die in pregnancy or childbirth from complications, he says
  • Osotimehin: Thirty-six of the 40 countries with the highest rates are in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Expanding access to modern contraception in developing world is key, says Osotimehin

Editor's note: Babatunde Osotimehin is under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

(CNN) -- The number of women dying of pregnancy and childbirth-related complications has been cut nearly in half over the past two decades, reflecting important and hard-won gains in improving access to family planning and maternal health across the world.

The annual number of maternal deaths worldwide dropped from more than 543,000 to 287,000, according to a report, "Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990-2010," released last month by the World Health Organization, the U.N. Population Fund, UNICEF and the World Bank.

This is good news to celebrate Wednesday, which is World Population Day. From these latest estimates, we can see that investments in improving access to reproductive health are bearing fruit. Although things are moving in the right direction, there is an urgent need to do more.

Every day, some 800 women die in pregnancy or childbirth from complications that are very often preventable, such as severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure during pregnancy and unsafe abortion. For every woman who dies, a further 20 women suffer debilitating childbirth injuries, such as obstetric fistulas.

Babatunde Osotimehin
Babatunde Osotimehin

As the lead U.N. agency for sexual and reproductive health, we at UNFPA are working closely with the U.N. secretary-general's Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health and the Every Woman, Every Child initiative, which involves sister U.N. agencies, governments, businesses and foundations in working toward saving the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015.

We have the tools for preventing these tragedies. Measures such as expanding access to voluntary family planning, investing in health workers with midwifery skills and ensuring access to emergency obstetric care when complications arise have been shown time and again to work.

These interventions not only help save lives, but also support the healthy development of families, communities and nations.

Ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths happen in the developing world, where millions of women are still denied even the most basic levels of care during pregnancy. Thirty-six of the 40 countries with the highest maternal death rates are in sub-Saharan Africa. In that region, the lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 39. In the United States, it is 1 in 2,400. In Sweden, it is 1 in 14,100.

Yet many countries have shown remarkable commitments to reversing these trends and ensuring that women have access to skilled health care during pregnancy and childbirth, regardless of where they live.

Ten countries so far, including Nepal, Lithuania and Vietnam, have already met the Millennium Development Goal target of reducing maternal deaths from 1990 levels by 75% by 2015. Another nine countries, including Eritrea and Bangladesh, are on track for meeting their targets.

In other regions, we already know what needs to be done. Fortunately, the new data also show us where to target our efforts. Two countries account for a full third of all maternal deaths: India with 56,000 deaths and Nigeria with 40,000 deaths. Just 10 countries account for 60% of all maternal deaths.

Expanding access to modern contraception for women across the developing world is another highly cost-effective measure that has proven results, and which could in itself reduce the numbers of maternal deaths by a third. In sub-Saharan Africa, just 22% of the women have access to modern contraception.

In addition, there is a particular need for investment in health and education for the roughly 500 million adolescent girls who live in the developing world. Many of them never have a chance to fulfill their potential, because they marry too young and become pregnant too early. All too often, they lack access to adequate health care during pregnancy and at the time of birth. As a result, 70,000 teenage girls die in pregnancy or childbirth each year, making maternal death the most common cause of death for girls between 15 and 19 years old.

Often, a high prevalence of maternal death reflects the low status of women in a society. With greater access to health and education, however, new generations of girls will be empowered to delay pregnancy, advance gender equality and contribute to the economic development of society.

As educated mothers, they will be more likely to invest in the health and education of their children, thus empowering future generations as well. Empowered young people, women and others can beat the poverty trap, propel national development and ensure a more sustainable future for the world.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Babatunde Osotimehin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT