In the News 2010

Gender Equality and Political Will Crucial in Reducing Maternal Mortality


Gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights are key factors in reducing maternal mortality in the world. Political will, adequate financing and men’s responsibility are other vital elements in reducing the number of women who die during pregnancy, in childbirth and due to unsafe abortions. This was established at a seminar arranged by the Government during the UN meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women currently under way in New York.

UN Millennium Development Goal number five to reduce maternal mortality by 75 per cent by 2015 was the theme of the seminar’s panel debate. We still have a situation in which half a million women die each year as a result of complications in connection with pregnancy, childbirth and unsafe abortions. Of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals, MDG 5 is the one on which progress is slowest.

Possible ways forward

The aim of the panel debate led by moderator Åsa Regnér, Secretary-General of the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, was to point to possible ways forward. Two of the key issues were: ‘What are the key factors in reducing maternal mortality?’ and ‘What action should the UN, governments, the civil sector and other stake holders take to speed up developments to achieve MDG 5?’ A distinguished panel of representatives of the United Nations Population Fund, NGOs involved in various ways in the issue, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and a gynaecologist and doctor from Chad discussed and highlighted various factors for success. Two of these were financing and political will.

“The sum used by the world’s governments for six days of military expenditure would be enough to reduce maternal mortality in the world by 75 per cent. Here we see where the political priorities lie,” pointed out Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, who was applauded by the audience.

The United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute have recently published a report on maternal mortality entitled ‘Adding it up’, which shows that greater investment in family planning and maternity care would save the lives of 400 000 women and also have a range of positive effects on health, society and the economy. By doubling the current sum of approximately SEK 85 billion, maternal mortality can be reduced by 70 per cent. Thoraya Obaid also stressed that the new strengthened Gender Entity being created within the UN can play an important political role in future work.

Political will is crucial

The panel was agreed that political will is crucial. However, it is not always focused in the right direction. Jon O´Brien, from the organisation Catholics for Choice, spoke about the conservative religious forces that have gained ever greater influence over politics in the last ten to fifteen years.

“Ninety women will die during the time this seminar takes place. It’s shocking that this situation is allowed to continue and it’s a moral scandal that the political will to do anything about it is lacking. A Catholic patriarchy that practices religious fundamentalism has gained an absurd amount of influence on politics. I am a Catholic myself and religion is an important part of people’s lives. But religion must not control politics. Catholics in general believe in family planning, but the Catholic hierarchy is very influential and puts politicians under a great deal of pressure. Politicians must ask themselves who the Catholic lobby is representing, and who they themselves are speaking for,” believes Jon O’Brien.

Maternal mortality can be stopped

Grace Kodindo, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, dared to show a glimmer of optimism, despite the extremely difficult situation in her home country of Chad (a situation that is shared with most sub-Saharan countries):

“We know that maternal mortality can be prevented. We know exactly what we need to do. Countries such as Sweden have also had high levels of maternal mortality in the past. Governments have to invest in effective maternity care for all – not least for poor women in rural areas. There are countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia that are well on the way to achieving this, and it is political will that is making it possible,” said Grace Kodindo.

Gender equality is fundamental

Another underlying issue that all members of the panel highlighted was the fundamental importance of gender equality and women’s rights in reducing maternal mortality.

Grace Kodindo stressed that there is a direct link between power and maternal mortality. She spoke of the situation in Chad where young women bleed to death because they cannot get to hospital in time as the man of the house is not at home and the woman is not allowed to leave the house without the man’s consent, or she has no money of her own to get to hospital.

Edford Mutuma from the Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia talked about advocacy work to highlight the role and responsibility of men in reducing maternal mortality. For many years Edford Mutuma has been educating men in the importance of using contraception and practising safe sex, and the importance of gender equality and women’s rights.

“We need men who break with social norms and want to improve conditions for women. Who are the women behind the maternal mortality statistics? They’re our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and friends. This is about attitudes and norms that must be changed and we have to start with the younger generation,” he believes.

Not just a health issue

Susanne Wadstein Head of Sida’s gender equality division also highlighted the gender equality perspective and the positive change that has occurred since maternal mortality has no longer been seen as just a health issue.

“It’s important to look at sexual and reproductive rights and how important behaviour and attitudes are in reducing maternal mortality. We have to work at all levels. Having the right to exercise control over one’s own body is a fundamental human right; it’s not a health issue, it’s a rights issue,” stated Susanne Wadstein.

“Politicians in various areas have to take their responsibility. The issue of maternal mortality is complex and involves many aspects. There is a link between women’s right to own land, political participation and sexual and reproductive health and rights,” Susanne Wadstein pointed out.

Minister for Integration and Gender Equality Nyamko Sabuni, who opened the seminar, also stressed that maternal mortality is an important gender equality issue.

“It’s very important that gender equality ministers are committed to this and not just health ministers, development cooperation ministers and so on. We have to work together. If maternal mortality were a problem in Sweden it would be the highest priority issue for me to work on at national level,” said Ms Sabuni.

This article originally appeared on

Catholics for Choice