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
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT