The Great Worldwide Divide in Maternal Health


State of the World's Children 2009 Report Released

Over the course of the twentieth century, advances in healthcare have transformed the nature of childbirth in the developed world. What used to be one of the most dangerous events in a woman's life is now a safe milestone occasion. Pregnancy and labor now causes serious harm to a woman's health only in very rare occurrences. This positive advance, however, is not available to all.

For the women of the developing world, it is almost like time has been standing still. The United States has not had a maternal mortality rate as poor as that which currently exists in South Asia since the 1930s. And it was around the time of the First World War that the US had as many women dying in childbirth as sub-Saharan Africa has today (Loudon 2000).

It is this stagnation in progress that inspired UNICEF to focus its recently released State of the World's Children 2009 report on maternal mortality. The statistics revealed in the report are shocking.

  • Every year, more than 500,000 women die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications.
  • Around 99 per cent of these deaths take place in the developing world.
  • Around 70,000 of these deaths are among girls and young women 15 to 19.
  • Whereas a woman in the developed world has a 1 in 8,000 risk of maternal death, for women in the developing world the chance is 1 in 76. In South Asia, the figures are 1 in 59 and in sub-Saharan Africa they are 1 in 22 women.
  • Half of all pregnant women are anemic. Anemia is easily treatable; left untreated, it significantly heightens vulnerability to maternal death.

According to UNICEF, in order to improve the languishing maternal mortality figures for women in the developing world gender inequality must be ended.

Discrimination against women prevents them from accessing education, which has been proven to lower risk of maternal death; from seeking or receiving health care; and from acquiring the life skills they need to avoid sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, inadequate birth spacing, violence and exploitation. Gender inequality also promotes early marriage, in which girls become pregnant before their bodies are ready.

Finally, gender inequality limits women's income generation potential and their ability to ensure food security for themselves and for their families. This cements hunger and poverty for the whole community, and keeps women from bringing children into the world safely.

The Hunger Project supports maternal health by improving awareness, education, availability of health care and, most importantly, by raising the status of women within society. We empower women to have voice in decision making and to gain awareness about the importance of pre- and postnatal care. In India, for example, women leaders learn the importance of good nutrition and health care through skills training workshops. As village leaders, they ensure that health care is available and effective for the women in their community. In Africa, in addition to participating in skills training workshops, women also receive maternal checkups and are able to have safe deliveries at health care centers in each of the Hunger Project's epicenters.

Read the full UNICEF report.


Loudon, Irvine. "Maternal mortality in the past and its relevance to developing countries today." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 72, No. 1, 241S-246s, July 2000.