Combating Maternal Mortality Crucial To Meeting MDGs

Maternal Health in PeruMost maternal deaths are entirely preventable. Yet, while the world is making progress in fighting maternal mortality, far too many women are still losing their lives.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the most prominent global anti-poverty initiative ever undertaken.  The goals set out targets for alleviating extreme poverty, including reducing maternal deaths by 75% (MDG5), by 2015. However, even this modest target will not be met by the deadline unless efforts are significantly stepped up.

Meeting the maternal mortality target, for example, would require a 5.5% annual reduction in maternal deaths since 1990, and the world has seen only 2.3% annual improvement.  A woman still dies from complications of pregnancy or childbirth every 90 seconds.


African Activists' Struggle to Improve Maternal Health

Activist Juliette Compaoré says the MDG summit will have an impact in Burkina Faso © Amnesty International

New UN statistics released last week show that world leaders are struggling to keep their promise of cutting the maternal mortality ratio by 75 per cent by 2015. For activists in Sierra Leone, the slow progress is no surprise.

Many people don’t understand that maternal health is a human rights issue and so many other factors contribute to these deaths. Discrimination, lack of facilities, domestic violence and poverty… if these underlying issues aren’t addressed, it will undermine the good work that is being done,” says Victor L Koroma, an activist based in the capital Freetown.

Koroma’s small organization, the Campaign for the Promotion of Health and Human Rights Activities, campaigned to abolish medical fees in Sierra Leone. In April, the government took the landmark step of introducing free healthcare for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

However, Koroma warned world leaders gathering this week in New York to discuss progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that more still needs to be done.

“We need to go beyond free healthcare because there are lots of problems. Many midwives are not properly trained and drugs and blood are not available. Nutrition is completely ignored. Drugs are unevenly distributed and there is discrimination – whether on the basis of tribe, gender, social status or political affiliation.

“World leaders, donors, the UN and the World Bank all need to do their bit if a country like Sierra Leone is to be saved from the ravages of pregnant women dying every day.”

Koroma paints a harrowing picture of the scale of the maternal health crisis facing MDG decision-makers.

“Sexual and gender-based violence is rampant; women and girls as young as five are being raped. Many then become infected with HIV. Yet the government does nothing. In the last year only two people have been sentenced for violence against women out of probably thousands of cases,” he says.

The UN statistics show an average annual decline of 2.3 per cent since 1990, falling way short of the 5.5 per cent decline needed to reach the 2015 target. Although a woman is no longer dying every minute, the new statistics show that one woman is still dying every minute and a half.

Severe discrimination and the low social status of women also fuel the high rate of maternal deaths in Sierra Leone, where women’s health needs are given low priority by their own families and community leaders.

Most maternal deaths in Sierra Leone take place in rural areas cut adrift from hospitals. Most women die in their homes. Some die on the way to hospital; in taxis, on motorbikes or on foot.

Millennium Development Goals Are Failing World's Poorest People

World leaders are meeting next week at a United Nations Summit in New York to review progress made to alleviate poverty around the world since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were set a little over a decade ago.  Unfortunately, the MDGs are failing the world’s poorest people because governments are ignoring and abusing human rights.

More than a billion people living in slums are not even included in MDG efforts because the MDG target on slums only commits to improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, will be leading Amnesty’s delegation to the summit.  He said:

“Unless world leaders agree to take urgent steps to uphold the human rights of people living in poverty, the poorest and most disadvantaged people around the world will continue to be left out of the MDGs.

“But language alone is not enough, people must be able to hold governments accountable when they fail to uphold human rights. They should be able to challenge corruption or neglect through courts and regulatory bodies to ensure governments actually fulfil their obligations.”

An estimated 70 per cent of those living in poverty are women. Yet MDG efforts in many countries fail to address the wide-spread discrimination women face in accessing food, water, sanitation and housing, while discriminatory policies, laws and practices that underpin gender-based violence and undermine progress on all the MDGs, have been left to fester.

Kenya is one country whose policies have ignored the needs of women living in slums © Amnesty International

Many states are carrying out mass forced evictions that drive slum dwellers even deeper into poverty and violate their right to housing.

For example, in just one city in Nigeria over 200,000 people are currently facing eviction because the authorities plan to demolish more than 40 informal settlements in Port Harcourt’s waterfront area. Thousands will lose their livelihoods as well as their homes if the demolitions go ahead.

Kenya is an example of another country whose policies have ignored the needs of women living in slums while trying to meet its MDG targets. Women living in slums risk being attacked when trying to use communal toilets, particularly after dark. The lack of effective policing to prevent, investigate and punish gender-based violence or provide an effective remedy to women and girls, means violence against women goes largely unpunished.

Another case is Nicaragua, which despite committing to the MDG target on improving maternal health, has outlawed abortion in all circumstances. The overwhelming majority of pregnancies as a result of rape or incest are amongst girls aged between 10 and 14, whose health and life are put at risk by unsafe abortions or by having to give birth at an early age.