Maternal Health Task Force

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Making a Human-Rights and Socioeconomic Case for Preventing Maternal Mortality

By: Katie Millar, Technical Writer, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

On October 7, 2014, a panel of experts in maternal health—moderated by Dr. Ana Langer, the Director of the Maternal Health Task Force—gathered at the Harvard School of Public Health to discuss the socioeconomic impact of a maternal death on her family and community. Several studies were summarized and priorities for how to use this research were discussed by the panel and audience at “Women’s Lives Matter: The Impact of Maternal Death on Families and Communities.”

What does the research say?

In many countries around the world, the household is the main economic unit of a society. At the center of this unit is the mother and the work—both productive and reproductive—that she provides for her family. A study in Kenya, led by Aslihan Kes of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Amy Boldosser-Boesch of Family Care International (FCI), showed great indirect and direct costs of a mother losing her life. This cost is often accompanied by the additional cost and care-taking needs of a newborn. “Once this woman dies the household has to reallocate labor across all surviving members to meet the needs of the household. In many cases that meant giving up other productive work, loss of income, hiring an external laborer, girls and boys dropping out of school or missing school days to contribute [to household work],” shared Kes. In addition, the study done in Kenya determined that families whose mother died used 30% of their annual spending for pregnancy and delivery costs; a proportion categorized by the WHO as catastrophic and a shock to a household.

Similar research was conducted in South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Malawi by Ali Yamin and colleagues. In addition to similar socioeconomic findings to those in Kenya, Yamin found that in Tanzania less than 50% of children survived to their fifth birth if their mother died compared to over 90% of children whose mothers lived. An even more dramatic relationship was found in Ethiopia with 81% of children dying by six months of age if their mother had died. In South Africa, mortality rates for children whose mothers had died were 15 times higher compared to children whose mothers survived.

Increasing the visibility of maternal death

While a family is grappling with grief they are also making significant changes in roles and structure to meet familial needs. Dr. Klugman emphasized this point when she said, “Quantifying [the] effects [of maternal death]… and the repercussions down the line—in terms of poverty, dropping out of school, bad nutrition, and future life prospects—I think are all tremendously powerful. [This] additional information [is] very persuasive—to take to the ministries of finance, to take to donors, to take to stakeholders—to help mobilize action for the interventions that are needed.”

Apart from the economic and social costs, is a foundation of human rights violations and gender inequalities. The high rate of preventable maternal mortality is no longer a technical issue, but a social issue. “Maternal mortality it is a global injustice. It is the indicator that shows the most disparities between the North and the developing world in the South. It’s not a technical problem, it’s because women lack voice and agency at household, community, and societal levels and because their lives are not valued. Through this research of showing what happens when those women die, it shows in a way how much they do [and how it] is discounted,” said Dr. Yamin, whose research focuses on the human rights violations in maternal health.

Leveraging this research for improved reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health

The research findings are clear: prevention of maternal mortality is technically feasible, the right of every woman, and significantly important for the well-being of a family and a community. Boldosser-Boesch provided three reasons why making the case for preventing maternal mortality is critical at this time.

  1. These findings strengthen our messaging globally and in countries with the highest rates on the importance of preventing maternal mortality, by increasing access to quality care, which includes emergency obstetric and newborn care.
  2. This research supports integration across the reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health (RMNCH) continuum to break down current silos in funding and programs.
  3. “We are at a key moment… for having new information about the centrality of RMNCH to development, because… the countries of the world are working now to define a new development agenda, beyond the MDGS, post-2015. And that agenda will focus a lot on sustainable development… and we see in these findings… , connections to the economic agenda…, questions of gender equality, particularly what this means for surviving girl children, who… may experience earlier marriage or lack of access to education,” shared Boldosser-Boesch.

In order to move the agenda forward on preventing maternal mortality and ensuring gender equality, ministries of health and development partners must be engaged. In addition, donors can fund the action of integration to address a continuum approach and media outlets should be leveraged to disseminate these findings and hold governments accountable for keeping promises and making changes. The prevention of maternal mortality is a human rights-based, personal, and in the socioeconomic interest of a family, community, and a society.

This panel included:

  • Ana Langer, Director of the Maternal Health Task Force
  • Alicia Yamin, Lecturer on Global Health at the Harvard School of Public Health
  • Amy Boldosser-Boesch, Interim President & CEO, Family Care International
  • Jeni Klugman, Senior Adviser at The World Bank Group
  • Aslihan Kes, Economist and Gender Specialist, International Center for Research on Women

Watch the webcast here.

Categories: Maternal Health

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