Maternal Mortality is Down; What About Women’s Rights?

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By: Jessica Mack, Senior Editor, Gender Across Borders, Manager, Global Health Strategies

The MHTF is soliciting reactions from the maternal health community to the newly released UN MMR data. Our hope is that, together, these comments will serve as a springboard for discussion and provide momentum towards MDG5.

This is cross-posted from Gender Across Borders 

Last week the UN released their global maternal mortality figures (, which basically matched the figures released by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation back in May – globally, maternal deaths have dropped by about 200,000 deaths per year.

What does it mean from a global feminist perspective?  While it means good things – a drop is obviously better than an increase — I think the fact that we haven’t had more progress can be explained in part by our failure to leverage the power of human rights arguments in our efforts to address maternal health.

That is, I think in this field we too often rely on the heart string-pulling ability of stories of mothers lost… without stressing the inalienable truth that women’s rights — human rights — are at a complete loss here.  We want leaders to act because they’d be terrible people if they didn’t, or because they’d be making poor economic decisions if they didn’t invest in maternal health…but not because they absolutely must – as part and parcel of our global efforts to protect and promote human rights writ large.

That is still an elusive message for feminists and activists in the maternal and reproductive health community.

In too many parts of the world, women simply don’t matter enough to others, or themselves, frankly, to spur enough change fast enough.  A woman can survive childbirth thanks to new technologies, only to be raped and shamed one week later, or see her daughter married off at twelve.  So maternal health indicators are really only one metric of a broader social justice issue that continues to plague the globe.

I was at the Women Deliver advocacy brunch this morning, a powerful kick-off to an action-packed week at the UN, where global leaders and delegates will meet to review the Millennium Development Goals Graca Machel, international women’s rights advocate and spouse of Nelson Mandela, gave a rabble rousing opening speech where she made a simple but powerful point: women’s rights are human rights, and yet this fact has been running to catch up with our local, national, and global policies for decades.  We should be enraged and propelled by this injustice.  Women matter first and foremost because they matter; secondly because they are at the heart of development and growth for our families, communities, and economies.

Machel said the word “rights,” which I find is so often missing in the maternal and child health discussions, especially when it comes to the MDGs.  She foreshadowed a day when we wouldn’t need to come up with compelling economic arguments or tell one more horrible story about a woman in prolonged labor, waiting for the delivery of blood supply while her newborn dies inside her womb.  She foreshadowed the day when women would be prioritized, placed at the foremost of global development efforts because they…we…have been suffering from rights abuses on too many levels for too long.

That’s what these numbers mean to me – a clarion call to bring out the big guns, and raise the flag… women’s rights are human rights and no one can afford to ignore that fact any longer.