What’s there to celebrate on International Women’s Day?

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As we celebrate International Women’s Day, UNICEF data show that in terms of maternal deaths, there has been remarkable progress in the last decade.

Many countries once seen as sheer hell for mothers seem to have turned a corner. For example, Afghanistan used to be known one of the worst countries to be a mother, where in 2005 a woman had a 1 in 8 chance in her lifetime of dying of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. In 2010 her chances had dramatically improved, to 1 in 32.

In Niger, a woman’s odds of dying in childbirth improved from 1 in 7 in 2005 – the absolute worst that year – to 1 in 23 in 2010. In the same period in Sierra Leone, the risks went from 1 in 8 to one in 23; and in Liberia from 1 in 12 to 1 in 24. In Rwanda the maternal mortality rate plummeted from 1 in 16 in 2005 to one in 54 in 2010.

This is because many countries are making investments in health, in education of mothers and caregivers, in pre- and post-partum care. These have actually yielded many times their monetary value in the lives of women saved.

This doesn’t mean all is well. In 2010, 287,000  mothers still died in the simple act of giving birth — including 1,400 in rich countries. So there is still more to be done.

Conflicts, poverty, lack of access to care, too little investments – all contribute to keeping progress out the reach of hundreds of thousands of women, and they continue to pay with their lives.

Chad – the current ‘worst country’ – loses one mother in every 15 in pregnancy and childbirth, only slightly better than the 1 in 11 rate in 2005. A Somali woman’s chances barely moved – from 1 in 12 in 2005 to one in 16 in 2010.

When mothers die, their babies have a higher risk of dying, especially in the first 28 days.

On these neonatal deaths, there’s good news and bad news. As maternal deaths have fallen there has been a commensurate decrease in the rate of neonatal deaths. However, in many countries, because of population growth, and because the best practices in caring for new-borns are not used, the actual number of children dying has increased.

This proves that the survival of the mother is not enough to ensure the survival of the child. More is needed, including immediate skilled post-natal care; attention to harmful traditional practices; and education.

On International Women’s Day we must celebrate women yes, but we must also protect mothers; and protect their new-born babies.

It’s the 21st century; we know what needs to be done. All we have to do is go ahead and do it.

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