Maternal mortality: Not just a human rights issue

A mother and her newborn in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Maternal mortality rates remains stubbornly high in far too many countries around the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by: Kibae Park / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

Around the world, governments, nongovernmental organizations and public health entities have made major strides in tackling some of the greatest health challenges facing communities.

Maternal mortality has been celebrated as a major success story in the global development field in recent years, with annual deaths of pregnant women dropping significantly — from 523,000 to 289,000 — over the past two decades.

Yet maternal mortality rates remains stubbornly high in far too many countries around the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, in particular, a woman dies in childbirth every two hours. That’s 12 deaths per day, 84 deaths every week and nearly 4,400 deaths every single year. Nearly all of these deaths are preventable.

These numbers are shocking, and indeed, saddening, as maternal deaths devastate families, leaving them grief-stricken and often unsure about how to carry on. And while the emotional toll is shattering, a family and community’s pain and suffering don’t end there.

To assess the true cost of maternal mortality, including economic, social and other noneconomic costs, the International Center for Research on Women partnered with Family Care International and the Kemri-CDC Research and Public Health Collaboration to calculate the impact of a mother’s death in western Kenya on the family’s financial stability, health and well-being.

What we discovered was unsurprising, but indeed heart-wrenching.

Our research found that maternal death is directly linked to neonatal mortality. Among the 59 maternal deaths surveyed, little more than 50 percent of babies survived delivery. And of those who did survive, eight died during the first week of life, and another eight died in the following weeks. All in all, only 1 in 4 babies survived — a heartbreaking figure when also compounded by the loss of a mother.

Additionally, when a woman dies, her family faces crippling economic hardships. As well as health care related costs, expenses related to her funeral often exceed the total annual per capita household expenditure on food and nonfood items. These costs are exacerbated by the fact that family members of deceased loved ones typically take considerable time off work during the funeral period, as is tradition in the region, putting immense strain on an already difficult financial situation.

Children’s schooling is also affected. When a mother dies, children are often pulled out of school either to care for siblings, or because economic disruptions restrict families’ ability to afford school fees.

We know that women’s contribution to their families’ well-being is immeasurable. They contribute as producers, as income earners, farmers and entrepreneurs, and at the same time take on most, if not all, of the household care work. Their loss can force households, particularly those already vulnerable, into poverty and can hinder a family’s development for decades.

Given this chain of loss that occurs when mothers die, it’s evident that we must do more to protect the lives of women, whose deaths cause ripple effects within families and across communities. As such, we must acknowledge that maternal mortality is not just a human rights issue; it’s an economic and social issue with consequences that cannot be ignored.

While we continue to advocate for measures to reduce maternal mortality, let's make sure immediate measures are put in place to improve financial and social support for families facing maternal health crises, including maternal death.

These measures can include:

1. Abolishment of user fees to prevent catastrophic expenditure for families.
2. Outreach to families experiencing maternal deaths in the immediate postpartum period and throughout the first year, in order to maximize newborn survival.
3. Financial and social support to ensure that surviving children remain healthy and are able to continue with their education, through the expansion of Orphan and Vulnerable Children programs — in place to support children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV — to also include children left motherless by maternal mortality.

Measures such a the ones above will be an important stopgap measure to ensure that if and when a mother perishes, their families will not be left in financial ruin.

This research was released this month in conjunction with a number of other studies on the high cost of maternal health. Combined, these studies provide compelling evidence that the world’s mothers cannot wait another day for global leaders to do everything they can to ensure women have access to comprehensive reproductive and maternal health care that meets their needs and their unique circumstances.

A failure to do so not only inflicts a huge emotional toll on families; we now know the financial and social costs that result from maternal deaths are indeed a price too high to bear.

To read additional content on global health, go to Focus On: Global Health in partnership with Johnson & Johnson.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Aslihan Kes

    Aslihan Kes is an economist and gender specialist at the International Center for Research on Women where she provides technical assistance, management and budgetary support to research partners. An economist with six years of experience in research and program design, her work at ICRW has included analyzing the costs of maternal mortality on households as well as developing approaches to integrate gender considerations into agricultural projects.