I have no idea what my family is planning for me this Mother’s Day — if anything — but I do know that I am one of the lucky ones. My children get to go to school every morning. I send them off with a nutritious breakfast, and greet them at the end of the day with a warm meal and a warm bed. They don’t have to worry about violence or civil war when they walk down the street, and we all have full access to top notch health care.
Childbirth more dangerous than bullets or bombs
Now consider this: childbirth in Afghanistan is more dangerous today than bullets or bombs.
“Basically 1 in 11 women in Afghanistan will die during pregnancy or childbirth — that’s about 200 times the risk they are going to be harmed by the conflict in Afghanistan,” says Mary Beth Powers, chief of Save the Children’s newborn and child survival campaign.
“What we’re really concerned about as we go into this budget-cutting session is that we don’t try to balance the budget on the backs of poor women and children, in this country or around the world,” Powers continues. “So it’s a really critical time for people to be looking at where it’s good to be a mom, and where it’s still difficult to be a mom.”
Top to bottom: a stark contrast in life expectancy
So if Afghanistan is at the bottom of the list, who’s at the top? That honor goes to Norway, where just 1 in 333 children die before age 5, and women typically complete 18 years of school. Compare that to Afghanistan, where 2 out of every 5 children are malnourished and 1 in 5 will die before his or her 5th birthday. Afghan women average less than 5 years of schooling. As for life expectancy, Norwegian women typically live to age 83. And Afghan women? Try 45.
Eight out of the 10 top-ranked countries are in Western Europe. On the other hand, and perhaps no surprise, 8 of the 10 worst countries for mothers are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Where does the U.S. fit into the picture?
The United States ranked 31st out of 44 developed countries this year – dropping 3 slots compared to last year’s index. Why?
“One of the key factors and where the United States just doesn’t compete with Europe or Australia or New Zealand is in child mortality. We still have twice the child mortality rates,” Powers contends. Believe it or not, the United States’ rate for maternal mortality is the highest of any industrialized nation.
“We lose more mothers from pregnancy-related causes than most other countries that ranked really well, and that has to do with the underlying conditions faced by women often living in poor situations in the U.S.,” Powers explains.
Think about it this way: a mother in the U.S. is more than 7 times as likely as a mother in Italy or Ireland to die from pregnancy-related causes and her risk of maternal death is 15 times that of a woman in Greece.
A child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a child in Greece, Iceland, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Singapore or Sweden to die before turning 5.
Furthermore, the United States has the least generous maternity leave policy of any wealthy nation the report found. On average, a new mother in the U.S. gets 12 weeks of paid leave. Norwegian mothers get close to a year.
The vital need to invest in mothers and children
“Both developing countries and developed countries really have to invest in making sure every mother and every child has access to a skilled health workers,” Powers says of her findings.
“We need those steps in this country, and we need those steps around the world. Without that access to basic health care services during pregnancy and delivery and in the first few months and years of life, we’re going to lose kids needlessly, and we’re going to lose mothers needlessly.”
Health care is not the only thing at stake. Education plays vital role as Powers points out. “Keeping girls in school longer helps them provide better for their family, mothers can invest more in their children and in the next generation, and their children are more likely to survive for every school year that a girl stays in school.”
That’s a pretty startling marker, and it doesn’t only apply to the developing world. Another startling marker: only about 58% of American children go to preschool. That number is a lot higher in many developed nations.
“Until we really invest in making sure every child in the United States gets the best start in early childhood education, we’re probably going to continue to lag behind our European counterparts,” Powers claims.
The news is not all bad
There is some promising news. Powers points to the global reduction in child mortality rates as a step in the right direction. Fourteen of the 15 countries that receive the most development assistance from the U.S. have shown a palpable decline in child deaths over the past decade. “So it’s really critical that within that development assistance budget we prioritize health and education assistance and we’re especially focused on keeping girls in school,” says Powers.
My Mother’s Day wish
So what do I want this Mother’s Day? No flowers and chocolates, thank you (not that I expect them). A little bit of extra attention and love would be nice. And I’d really like to sleep in.
But in all seriousness, considering that an average of 1,000 mothers around the world die each day from complications of pregnancy and childbirth — that’s more than 350,000 women — the best Mother’s Day gift of all would be to ensure that by next year, fewer mothers die, more mothers get prenatal health care, and more girls have an opportunity to go to school. After all, educating girls is one of the most effective ways to improve not only the well-being, but the status — economic and otherwise — of women and children the world over. And that affects us all.
Take action! Click here to sign the petition and support funding for maternal and childhood health around the world.
Photo courtesy of Andy Hall/Save the Children