Let us start this discussion with the story of a Nicaraguan woman named Maria. Maria got married at a young age, dropped out of school, and lived with her husband in the coffee fields. He was alone and alone – away from family and friends. Without receiving family planning or maternal health care, Maria became pregnant eight times and gave birth to eight children, cutting the umbilical cords herself. Her husband had not been present during the kids’ birth, and no one else lived nearby. On one occasion, she approached her mother and told her that she was afraid to be alone, but her mother replied that her place was with her husband, so she returned.
Maria survived the birth of eight children without help, but thousands of other women were not so fortunate. Every day, one woman dies a minute as a result of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. 98% percent of these women live in developing countries – in Africa and Asia in particular. In all health indicator studies, the mother’s health shows a massive gap between rich and poor. In poorer countries, the risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth is about 1 out of 16. In the more affluent countries, for example, the United States, the chance is less than one in 3,500.
The most common causes of these deaths are bleeding, preventable births, infections, unsafe abortions, and high blood pressure. This tragic death toll is 1,400 mothers every day and more than 500,000 deaths each year. The sad reality is that almost all of these women’s lives could have been saved if they had access to the four things we sometimes take for granted: family planning services, prenatal check-ups, skilled birth attendants, and emergency obstetric care.
Like those women who die unnecessarily, some women survive but are permanently disabled. For every woman who dies from pregnancy and childbirth complications, approximately 15 to 30 women suffer from chronic illnesses or disabilities that often last a lifetime. This number reaches about 20 million women each year; women suffer from non-fatal pregnancy complications, such as anemia, infertility, pelvic pain, and obstetric fistula. When we talk about the 20 million women worldwide who risk their lives through pregnancy and childbirth, we are not talking about just their health; we are talking about a global catastrophe!
Unfortunately, the global problem is receiving scant attention from all sections of society compared to its scale. We hear about AIDS, and we hear about SARS. But we do not hear much about the millions of women who die due to disease and disability, not because of illness, but in the process of bringing new life to the world. The fact is that these women suffer because of their nature assigned duties. They also suffer from the social stigma attached to sexism and violence.
Although women are respected in all cultures as givers of life, they are often viewed as inferior. The woes of women continue to deter policymakers from making women’s health and well-being a priority. The low status of women also prevents many women themselves from expecting and seeking better treatment. Of course, not all women accept mistreatment as usual. No, more and more women want the full rights of women to be respected. The global movement for women’s rights is one of the most potent social forces and most successful in recent history.
But, despite advancements, there are still too many women accepting their second-level status and too many men wanting that. That is why it is necessary to empower women through education, economic opportunities, health care, and legal rights to seek better treatment and services and, most importantly, meet their full potential as human beings. That is why it is also essential to work with men to be more sensitive to the needs and rights of women and fully understand the benefits of equal treatment and respect for women’s rights.
Women all over the world have the right to be safe mothers. They have a right to life. They have the right to live without sexual harassment and violence. However, millions of women suffer from violence, which seriously affects their health and the health of their families and community. Globally, the health burden of violence against women is compared to the burden of other risk factors and diseases, such as HIV / AIDS, tuberculosis, childbirth, cancer, and heart disease. That is why it is important to address gender-based violence in health and development programs.
Another issue of health and human rights is family planning. The right to freely decide the number, time, and space of your children and to have the means to do so is a universal human right. This fundamental right enhances the choice and enables women and couples to control their reproductive health and thus to have a greater degree of control over the rest of their lives. Family planning is also important for the health, the mother and baby.
Studies show that when births are very close, separated for less than two years, the infant mortality rate is 45 percent higher than when the birth is two to three years apart.
Babies born to young mothers also face significant risks. Studies show that they have a 30 percent higher mortality rate than children born to women between the ages of 20 and 30. This is because young mothers are less physically mature, which increases the risk of childbirth complications. Young mothers are also more likely to give birth prematurely or to have low birth weight — a condition that reduces the ability of babies to cope with illness or trauma at an early age.
Women are the backbone of families and nations. They should be at the forefront of development efforts. When women are healthy and educated, the whole community benefits. Research shows that countries that invest in girls’ education and reproductive health, which include family planning, register slower population growth, higher productivity and faster economic growth. Investing in women health and empowering them in process is one of the smartest investments we can make!