Maternal Mortality: Entirely Preventable, Yet Still Prevalent

Today marks the 100-year anniversary of International Women's Day -- an opportunity to celebrate the courageous efforts of women who have come before us and made the freedom so many of us enjoy today possible. But we'd be doing them a disservice if we were to simply celebrate. What we owe them -- as well as our daughters -- is a call to arms to reflect on just how much further we have to go. The rights of girls and women around the world are still more precarious than we may care to admit. 100 years, but we still have a long way to go.

Take maternal mortality. For most people in the U.S. and the developed world, the idea of a woman dying during childbirth sounds like something out of a Jane Austen novel. But in much of the developing world, it is part of daily reality. It's shocking -- whereas in the U.S. motherhood is for most women a joyous celebration, in many developing countries it is often said that to be pregnant is to put one foot in the grave.

I saw this time and again as I traveled the world to make the documentary, No Woman, No Cry, a film about four women in four countries at critical junctures in their pregnancies. After experiencing a complication following the birth of my daughter, I learned that hundreds of thousands of women die each year in pregnancy or childbirth. This horrified me, particularly when I learned that almost all of these deaths are preventable. I needed to understand why we would allow women to die when we know what to do to keep them alive. What I learned was that it largely comes down to a question of value. And the health and access disparities between rich and poor in the global North and South are extreme and unconscionable.

It's also a question of tools. Girls and women need access to tools. One way to prevent these senseless deaths is to ensure that all girls have access to comprehensive education. When girls complete secondary education, they are more likely to delay first pregnancies, have fewer children, and space their births, which all helps to ensure that moms are able to care for their own children.

The notion that so many girls are not choosing to become mothers when they do and then experience pregnancy without support of any kind is not only unfathomable, it is fundamentally inexcusable. In Bangladesh I met Monica, who told me that only when she finally became pregnant with her second child did people pay her any mind. In Tanzania I met Lightness, a sixteen-year-old who was forced to leave school when she became pregnant, having never been given any form of reproductive health information, and was then abandoned by the father of her baby. In Guatemala I met Linda, an OB/GYN who was eight months pregnant with her second child and scheduling her own delivery to ensure that she'd be able to get back out on the road to provide health care to indigenous women all over the country without access to services of any kind. And in the U.S., I met Jennie, the midwife who has never turned a pregnant woman away regardless of whether or not she is eligible for insurance. These are just a few of the stories I encountered and all of them point to a lack of support that leaves them and their families vulnerable.

It is often said that maternal health is the key indicator of how well any country's health system is doing. It is also the way we can measure the value a country places on its women and children.

I would add to this that for women -- the global community of women -- the standard by which we judge the health of our progress and equality shouldn't only be the woman who is CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the number of women on the Supreme Court. It should also be the woman in Tanzania who believes her life is insignificant until she bears children, but when she does conceive, is not given the medical support to have a healthy pregnancy. It should be judged by the number of women whose deaths during pregnancy or childbirth are perceived not as tragic casualties of inequitable health services, but accepted as noble martyrdom as they pursue their biological purpose. As long as their lives are not given value, none of us can fully celebrate our value as women.

Right now 1,000 women die every single day during childbirth or pregnancy. It doesn't have to be this way. Between 80 and 90 percent of maternal deaths are preventable. In Peru, while working with the international humanitarian organization CARE, I visited one community that reduced death rates by 50 percent in less than five years, simply by calling women by names rather than by a number, providing midwives that spoke the same language to assist their deliveries, encouraging women to come to the clinic to deliver by respecting their birthing traditions and by establishing a referral system and providing transport to a hospital if an emergency developed. This isn't rocket science; but it does require one incredibly precious commodity -- the political will to get it done. Political will is simply a reflection of the public's priorities -- and right now, an issue that virtually no one knows still exists doesn't rate very high.

Now is not the time to drop the ball on the future, America. None of us can afford to fall backward when lasting progress is within sight. The result of achieving this goal together will benefit every human being.

On this 100th anniversary of International Women's Day we must all recommit ourselves to ensuring true equality for our children, especially for our daughters and our daughter's daughters. And, until we achieve our goal we must continue to share the stories of the girls and women who have yet to fully realize their rights. My hope is that women who do exercise these rights in their daily lives will help make it possible for all women to do so. It's ironic that this day is celebrated by more women around the world and is more meaningful outside of our country when we have the most to celebrate. This should be a day of solidarity. May we never become complacent in our progress. It only magnifies disparities that should not be tolerated or justified.

Over time, what we have continued to prove is, we women are as patient as we are resilient, and when we are moved to action, there is no more powerful force in the world.