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HOME: POPULATION ISSUES: Safe Motherhood: Facts
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This page of the web, Making Motherhood Safer, was last updated in October 2007.

Facts about Safe Motherhood*

Every year, 536,000 women die from pregnancy-related causes.

This means that more than 1 million children are left motherless and vulnerable.

Children who have lost their mothers are up to 10 more times more likely to die prematurely than those who haven’t.

More than 80 per cent of maternal deaths worldwide are due to five direct causes: haemorrhage, sepsis, unsafe abortion, obstructed labour and hypertensive disease of pregnancy.

Most maternal deaths (61 per cent) take place during labour, delivery or in the immediate post-partum period. Some 3.4 million newborns die within the first week of life.

The risk of a woman dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth during her lifetime is about 1 in 8 in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone compared with fewer than 1 in 17,400 in Sweden.

More than 10 million women a year suffer severe or long-lasting illnesses or disabilities, from obstetric fistula to infertility, depression and impoverishment caused by complications of pregnancy or childbirth. 

Lack of access to contraception and consequences of unsafe abortions

An estimated 200 million women want to delay or avoid pregnancies but are not using family planning.

Researchers project that the demand for contraception will grow by 40 per cent during the next 15 years.

One in three deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be avoided if women who wanted effective contraception had access to it.

An estimated 19 million unsafe abortions are carried out each year in developing countries.

Every year, an estimated 68,000 women die as the result of unsafe abortions and millions more suffer complications.

Worldwide use of modern contraceptive methods, including voluntary sterilization, has increased from 10 per cent to 65 per cent over the past 45 years.

Lack of access to skilled assistance and emergency obstetric care

Four out of five maternal deaths are the direct result of obstetric complications, most of whihc could be averted through delivery with a skilled birth attendant and access to emergency obstetric care.

Up to 15 per cent of pregnant women in ALL population groups experience potentially fatal complications during birth—20 million women each year.

A study of 2.7 million deliveries across seven developing countries found that only one-third of women who needed life-saving care for a complication received it.

The majority of women die due to severe bleeding. This complication can kill a woman in less than two hours, so control of bleeding, replacement of blood or fast emergency evacuation is needed to save their lives.

Approximately five per cent of women — six million women — will need surgery, most often a Caesarean section, and many are without access to emergency obstetric care. This unmet need may result in death or painful disabilities, such as obstetric fistula

World-wide, 62 per cent of births were attended by a skilled health worker. Although almost all births in developed countries were attended by skilled health personnel, this proportion is 57 per cent in less developed countries and only 34 per cent in the least developed countries.

An estimated 35 per cent of pregnant women in developing countries do not have access or contact to health personnel prior to delivery.

In sub-Saharan Africa where maternal deaths are highest, fewer than 40 per cent of women receive skilled assistance during childbirth.

Maternal mortality is highest during labour and the two days just following birth.

Women who undergo infibulation – a radical form of female genital mutilation/cutting that involves stitching of the external genitalia – are at higher risk of complications during childbirth.

Young people’s lack of knowledge and opportunities

Girls aged 15 - 20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their twenties. Girls under the age of 15 are five times as likely to die. 

Girls aged 15 -19 account for one in four unsafe abortions – an estimated 5 million each year. 

Complications of pregnancy or childbearing represent the leading cause of mortality for girls aged 15-19 in developing countries.

Less than 20 per cent of all sexually active young people in Africa use contraception.

 Women’s rights

In societies where men traditionally control household finances, women’s health expenses are often not a priority. 

Women are often not in a position to decide if, when and with whom to become pregnant or to determine the number, spacing and timing of their children.

In countries with similar levels of economic development, maternal mortality is inversely proportional to women's status.

The poorer the household the greater the risk of maternal death

Early marriages, female genital mutilation/cutting, too many childbirths and violence signal the violation of a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.

Poverty and health care delivery

Maternal mortality rates mirror the huge discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots both within society and between countries.

Poor women are far more likely to die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth.

Poor families and individuals have less money and tend to live further away from healthcare facilities.

Tackling the problem of maternal death and disability will constitute a significant step towards poverty alleviation.

Strategies to reduce maternal death and disability will strengthen health systems in such a way as to benefit all. Indeed, maternal health indicators are used to gauge health system performance in terms of access, gender equity and institutional efficiency. Investing in maternal health therefore holds the promise of improving overall health service delivery.

Related Links:

Country-by-country statistics and demographic indicators
Maternal mortality statistics
Fact Sheet on Reproductive Health
Safe Motherhood Feature Stories

* Main sources for this page were The Lancet's Maternal Survival Series  (2006), the 2005 World Health Report: Make Every Mother and Child Count (WHO), and WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA maternal mortality estimates from 2005.

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