Gender injustice is toxic to development, nowhere more clearly than in the stark fact that having a child remains one of the biggest health risks for women worldwide. Fifteen hundred women die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. That’s half a million women every year, and the number has hardly budged in two decades, according to UNICEF’s flagship publication, The State of the World’s Children 2009, just published.
The difference in pregnancy risk between women in developing countries and their peers in the industrialized world is perhaps the greatest health divide in the world. On average, a woman in a least developed country is 300 times more likely to die than one in an industrialized country. A woman in Niger has a one in seven chance of dying during the course of her lifetime from complications during pregnancy or delivery. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa account for 95% of all maternal deaths (see chart).
Addressing that gap is a multidisciplinary challenge, requiring education, healthcare workers, community involvement and social equality. Around 80% of maternal deaths can be avoided if women have access to essential maternity and basic health-care services. At a minimum, women must be guaranteed antenatal care, skilled birth attendants and emergency obstetrics, and postpartum care. These essential interventions will only be guaranteed if they are accompanied by improved education and the end of discrimination.
Nothing clever you can say about this death toll: it’s tragic, scandalous and almost entirely avoidable.