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Mothers in Africa are Dying: Whose Responsibility Is It?

April 21, 2009

In developing countries, 1 woman dies every minute from pregnancy – related complications.

It would cost $3 per woman per year to prevent these deaths.

Given that the problem is so staggering and the costs so minimal, why can’t we (as an international community, individual nations and concerned citizens) come anywhere close to adequately addressing this issue?

In 2000 maternal mortality was named one of eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), yet negligible progress has been made since then (or in the decade leading up to then). Despite having “galvanized unprecedented efforts” and established measurable targets, maternal mortality’s renowned status as an MDG has done little to change the reality that over 500,000 women are dying each year.

Assuming (as many seem to) that women’s health does not matter of its own accord, the undeniable impact of women’s labor/care-taking/social status on society should have some import. If it’s the rights and health of children that draws your attention: babies left motherless at birth are 10x more likely to die within 2 years and 20% of disease in children less than 5 years is related to poor maternal health and nutrition. If it’s the status of the global economy that incites you, consider the following statistics: despite owning only 1% of the world’s land, women grow more than 50% of the world’s food. In rural Africa, it is women – not trucks, boats or aircraft – who transport two-thirds of all goods. And when women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90% of it into their families, as compared to only 30- 40% for a man. In short, ensuring the survival of mothers is crucial to national development. No country can afford not to invest its resources – financial and human – into addressing women’s health issues. And yet few seem to be doing so.

The highest rates of maternal mortality are in Africa. Despite staggering poverty in most of these countries, it is not a lack of wealth that fuels the problem. It is a severe dearth of international and national commitment and will.

Nigeria provides an excellent example. It is home to two percent of the global population, as well as 10 percent of all maternal deaths. In response to the critical state of maternal health, in 2007 the Nigerian government committed to increasing the profile of maternal, newborn and child health on the country’s development agenda. Health policies calling for equitable access to reproductive healthcare, training for healthcare providers in reproductive health, and improved access to family planning were created. However, as is always the case, good policies are meaningless if they are not actualized and enforced. Among other failings, government pledges to invest 15% of the annual budget in the health sector amounted to barely 5% in 2008. To date, women and girls in Nigeria have continued to experience everything but a commitment to ensure their health and well-being.

It’s with all this in mind, that today’s announcement of the Africa First Ladies Health Summit gives me pause. The line-up of both attendees and sponsors is impressive – 22 African First Ladies are be joined by the likes of Sharon Stone, Maria Shriver and others, with corporations like GE and ExxonMobile footing the bill. The conference’s goals are laudable – to identify actionable goals to address maternal mortality, to promote the leadership capabilities of Africa’s First Ladies and to forge new partnerships with U.S.-based agencies and corporate foundations. I, personally, have no doubt that women leaders are the most effective agents of change. And in the age of corporate responsibility, it’s a well known fact that corporate partners offer much-needed leverage and resources to a cause. However, I would classify my outlook on the conference as cautiously optimistic.

Chief among my concerns is what appears to be an underlying assumption that health is a predominately, if not solely, women’s issue. “Empowering Africa’s first ladies is an innovative approach to bettering the lives of millions of Africans,” one of the sponsors said in a written statement. I am not entirely convinced of the innovation. Instead I worry that it’s more akin to preaching to the choir. I am concerned that maternal mortality is being relegated to First Ladies as their token problem to solve, sidelining both the issue and women from larger national agenda concerns.

My intention is not to undermine the influence, power and capability of Africa’s First Ladies. I simply think men and women alike, and society in general, need to be implicated in ensuring women’s health and well-being. Men need to be held accountable for the role they play in maternal and reproductive health. Male leaders need to be forced to acknowledge the widespread consequences of the world’s population unnecessarily dying as a result of one of the most natural activities in a woman’s life – childbirth. Maternal health is a societal issue, not a women’s issue. It is a matter of individual rights, and of societal responsibility.

Among the First Ladies in attendance at the Africa First Ladies Health Summit is Nigerian First Lady, Hadjia Turai Umar Musa Yar’adu. I am going to hold out hope that perhaps with ExxonMobile on her side, she can convince her husband, the president of one of Africa’s biggest oil exporters, to ensure woman’s right to safe pregnancy and childbirth.

Based in Washington, D.C.,  Alicia Simoni sustains a career in gender, peace and development by writing about it. You can contact her at

  1. April 22, 2009 6:41 am

    Thanks for an informative, thoughtful piece.

  2. Jessica permalink*
    April 30, 2009 9:21 am

    I find it interesting that no where in your post did the word “abortion” appear which is, I think, exemplary of the discussion that very often happen around maternal morality. Unsafe abortion is responsible for about 14% of all maternal deaths, yet UNFPA and other women’s health giants won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Until we can talk openly and realistically about ALL of the contributing factors to maternal mortality, what’s the point? Who’s responsible? Ideological-driven policymakers who don’t support a woman’s full range of rights, and gun-shy global development people who aren’t helping to bring unsafe abortion more into the spotlight.

  3. Emily permalink*
    April 30, 2009 1:26 pm

    I think that you make a good point, Jessica although I cannot speak for the author. But I’m pretty sure that abortion would fall under “reproductive healthcare,” which is included in the article.

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