Maternal Health


Improve Maternal Health

MDG Goal #5 Improving maternal health – by cutting maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015 and guaranteeing universal access to reproductive health – is often called the heart of the MDGs, because if it fails, the other MDGs will too. Investment in reproductive health care, education, emergency obstetric services and skilled care at delivery will enable women to deliver – not just the next generation but also paychecks and productivity – everything development advocates work to achieve.


Facts at a Glance

Maternal mortality is defined as the death of a pregnant woman during her pregnancy or within 42 days of pregnancy termination.1

More than 287,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth every year. That is approximately 800 women a day – a 47% decline from the levels in 1990. Despite this decline, 99% of maternal deaths occur in developing countries.2,3*

Fully 42 percent of all pregnancies everywhere experience a complication. In 15 percent of all pregnancies, the complications are life-threatening.

Most maternal deaths occur just before, during, or just after delivery, often from complications that cannot be predicted and are difficult to prevent. Hemorrhage remains the leading cause of maternal death followed closely by sepsis, obstructed labor, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and complications from unsafe abortion.

For every woman who dies, approximately 20 more experience infection, disability, or injuries.  Most maternal death and morbidity can be prevented when births are attended by skilled health professionals.

Survival rates depend upon the distance and time a woman must travel to get skilled emergency medical care. The "three delays" raise mortality rates:

  • Delay in seeking care: women may have to get permission from family males, or may not recognize the emergency, or may fear hospital practices.
  • Delay in arriving at an emergency care facility: transportation may be unavailable or unaffordable or take too long.
  • Delay in receiving care from providers: richer patients or males may be seen first; facilities may lack staff, equipment or supplies; or care may be unaffordable.

Because of different levels of investment in women's needs, huge disparities exist in the lifetime risks of maternal death for women in rich and poor countries, and between the rich and poor in all countries.

  • Fewer than one in 14,840 women will die in pregnancy or childbirth in the top-ten ranked countries.
  • Afghanistan sits at the bottom of list with one in 11 women dying in pregnancy or childbirth.  It is closely followed by Chad, Guinea Bissau and Somalia.

The poorer the household, the lack of access to skilled birth attendants during pregnancy, and the lower the educational attainment, the greater the risk of maternal death.4

Nearly all deaths are preventable with increased political will and adequate financial investment.

The Costs of Poor Maternal & Newborn Health

The health of mothers is inseparable from the health of newborns, to the point that the World Health Organization now talks in terms of "maternal-newborn health."5

Over 41% of the child deaths under 5 are neonatal or infant mortality—and 98 percent of those deaths are in developing countries.6

More than 1 million children are left motherless and vulnerable every year. An infant whose mother dies within the first 6 weeks of life is more likely to die before the age of two than an infant whose mother survives.7

Girl children are often pulled from school and required to fill their lost mother's roles.

A mother's death lowers family income and productivity, affecting the entire community.

Practical Solutions

Maternal mortality could be cut by nearly three-quarters by improving women's access to comprehensive reproductive health services, including family planning and strategies to prevent or manage abortion-related complications, within the broader context of efforts to promote human rights, poverty reduction and gender equality.8

An estimated 200 million women want to delay or avoid pregnancy but don't use effective family planning. The demand is expected to rise 40 percent by 2025.

Care by skilled nurses, midwives or doctors during pregnancy and childbirth, including emergency services, and care for mothers and newborns is essential. Access to a skilled birth attendant during delivery in has increased from 53% to 63% during the period of 1990 to 2008.

About 35 percent of pregnant women in developing countries have no access to or contact with health personnel before delivery, and only 63 percent give birth with a skilled attendant present.9

Education can inform women about their bodies and give them options for life beyond childbearing. Of 137 million illiterate young people in the world, 63 percent are female.10

For Further Information:

View the 2008 Country Rankings for Maternal Mortality, organized by MMR and by Lifetime Risk

Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990- 2010, the UN report on Maternal Mortality Updates

The Lancet Maternal Mortality Estimates: Maternal Mortality for 181 countries, 1980-2008: a systematic analysis of progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5

The State of the World's Children 2007 Women and Children: The Double Dividend for Gender Equality 


1 Unless otherwise indicated all information in this fact sheet is from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, "Facts About Safe Motherhood," (accessed June 20, 2007).
2 Trends in Maternal Mortality : 1990-2010, UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO, World Bank, 2012.
3 Maternal Mortality for 181 countries, 1980-2008: a systematic analysis of progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5, Hogan et al,, April 12, 2010, p. 1.
4 Ibid.
5 World Health Organization, Moving Towards Universal Coverage: Issues in maternal-newborn health and poverty, three-part series of papers, Geneva, 2006.
6 Progress for Children: Achieving the MDGS with Equity, UNICEF, September 2010, p.22
7 Progress for Children: A Report Card on Maternal Mortality, UNICEF, September 2008, p. 3.
8 The Lancet, Executive Summary, Maternal Survival Series, September 2006, London, p. 1.
9Trends in Maternal Mortality : 1990-2008, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, The World Bank, 2010, p. 21
10 UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, State of World Population 2005: The Promise of Equality, UNFPA, New York, 2005, p. 46.


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