Ten years ago, I began working as a maternal health advocate to draw attention to the millions of mothers and newborns who die each year during pregnancy and childbirth.
I started my advocacy efforts as a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization and later l launched the Liya Kebede Foundation for mothers. Our mission is to back maternal health awareness, education and training initiatives so that more women can access quality maternity care.
There is an old saying in Africa that “to be pregnant is to have one foot in the grave.” When I was growing up in Ethiopia, we all knew a family that had been affected by the loss of a mother. Today, the situation is improving thanks to major improvements in maternity care. But far too many women have yet to be reached.
Here are 10 key facts you should know about maternal health around the world and how we have a chance to make that old adage history:
1. Every two minutes a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.
Most deaths occur in the 24-hour window around labor and delivery when risks are highest. Recognizing and immediately responding to an emergency is critical for the mother and baby.
2. Most deaths occur in 75 countries.
It's no surprise that moms are at greatest risk in places where resources are minimal. What’s surprising is that half of the world’s countries — including wealthy and growing middle-income nations — still struggle to extend quality care so that it reaches all women. And what’s shocking is that maternal deaths here in the United States are at the highest rate in a quarter century.
3. Young women are particularly at risk.
Seven million adolescent girls give birth each year and 70,000 die in childbirth. Rates of early motherhood are highest in areas where child marriage is most prevalent. Young brides have little say about their health. To make matters worse, little aid funding is devoted to programs targeted specifically to address their needs.
4. When a mother dies a chain of loss begins.
Her children are at a disadvantage. Their health suffers and they are 10 times more likely to drop out of school.
5. The good news: Almost all of these deaths are preventable.
We don’t need a medical breakthrough to save mothers’ lives. The majority of deaths can be prevented under the care of midwives, nurses, and doctors who are trained in standard procedures and equipped with basic, low-cost tools and medicines.
6. Investing in health workers yields incredible impact.
Sub-Saharan Africa averages just over 1 health worker for every 1,000 people, says the World Health Organization. Thankfully, this is changing. In my home country of Ethiopia, 38,000 health extension workers have been trained and placed throughout the country — even in the most remote communities. They are already credited with the dramatic improvement being realized in child health and maternal health is next.
7. Distance to well-equipped health facilities can be bridged.
Most women live more than five kilometers from the nearest health clinic. In Sub-Saharan Africa, ambulance service is rare and 30% of all hospitals and clinics lack reliable water and electricity. The good news is that advances in technology and design are changing the landscape dramatically. New all-terrain vehicles adapted to different environments and low-cost portable solar power solutions are making the whole health system a better and safer environment.
8. Education matters.
In countries where the average years of schooling is rising, maternal death rates are falling, too. Educated women are more likely to make use of prenatal services. Committed community leaders are making sure that more women are receiving a maternal health education and empowering them to make informed choices as they prepare to give birth.
9. Costs of care need not be prohibitive.
Each year, 40 million women give birth alone, and many do so because the costs of care are prohibitive. For the poorest families, the fees associated with giving birth can amount to a third of the family’s annual budget. However, innovative social support, and voucher and insurance programs are eliminating the financial burden.
10. We have the solutions to save lives … and it is possible.
Better maternity care can be made available to more women around the world when we commit to making them our top priority. Please share these facts and join me in taking a stand for moms.
Photographed by Gilles Bensimon: Paris Match