7 November 2012

Africa: Dying to Bring Life - the Plight of Pregnant Women in Africa

guest column

Africa has been winning media attention for boosting women's representation in political life. Less noticed by many, it has been been saving more maternal lives too.

So while the continent now has two female presidents, the African Union has a woman at its helm, and African women continue to pick up Nobel prizes, giving birth in Africa has slowly become safer too.

Ten African countries cut their maternal mortality rates by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 2010, and are on the verge of achieving MDG 5. Between 1995 and 2010, Rwanda cut its maternal mortality rate by nearly three quarters.

Healthy women, healthy mothers are the cornerstone of society. To paraphrase the UN Secretary-General's global movement, Every Woman Every Child, the health of women and their families is critical to almost every MDG.

But Africa's progress is still not reaching enough women. Some 265,000 African women still die every year bringing new life into this world.

While a woman's lifetime risk of maternal mortality is 1 in 3800 in developed countries, it is 1 in 150 in developing countries. Women in a country like Niger have a 1 in 7 lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or child birth.

In addition to pregnancy-related morning sickness and nausea, the average African woman must face fear of complications, excruciating pain and in some cases death, in their quest to experience the humbling and self-fulfilling experience of motherhood.

In a region where value is placed on childbirth, too many women are dying. Several factors can be attributed to this situation but ultimately the underlying causes of maternal mortality are poverty and discrimination. These and other issues hinder access to limited and in some cases nonexistent health facilities and services. These issues can also make access near impossible for pregnant women to receive the nutritious foods and medicines they need.

The problem in Africa is not so much a failure to ratify treaties which oblige States to provide social protection for mothers. The problem, as always, is the political will to ensure implementation of these commitments.

We know that skilled care before, during, and after birth can make the difference between life and death. Antenatal care has increased in many countries over the past decade, but only 46 percent of women in low-income countries benefit from skilled care during childbirth.

To improve maternal health, barriers that limit access to quality maternal health services must be identified and addressed at national and local level. Humanity has no excuse not to put in place measures to mitigate Africa's maternal mortality. All stakeholders have a moral responsibility.

Caroline Kende-Robb is the Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel, a group of distinguished individuals, chaired by Kofi Annan, dedicated to encouraging progress in Africa.

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