The death of more than half a million women each year from preventable complications of pregnancy and childbearing is a significant human rights issue. Saving the lives of these women is a priority action area for UNFPA. In addition to the denial of a woman’s right to life and health, among others, maternal death often compromises the rights of the rest of the family, as it may lead to family impoverishment and siblings being obliged to assume household responsibilities and drop out of school. Safe motherhood is also closely linked to newborn health.
The stark contrast in the risk of pregnancy between women in rich and poor countries (the highest differential of any public health indicator monitored by the World Health Organization) underscores the inequality of the situation. For a woman in West Africa, the lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth is 1 in 12. For women in industrialized countries, the comparable risk is 1 in 3,800. The difference between the rich and poor segments within less developed countries is high as well.
Significantly reducing maternal mortality is a target of both the Cairo Programme of Action and Millennium Development Goal 5. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Article 12) also calls on governments to provide appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, delivery, and the post-natal period, and to grant free services, where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.
UNFPA's approach to reducing maternal mortality is grounded in human rights and gender equality and equity principles. Recognizing the role of gender in influencing access to and quality of health care, a rights-based approach promotes the empowerment of women and supports conditions in which they can choose safe delivery. A rights-based approach also guides the design and implementation of UNFPA's maternal mortality policy and programming. Applied in a culturally sensitive manner, human rights principles can promote dignity and social justice for clients and providers at the levels of clinical operations, facility management and national policy. A human rights approach strives for equality and equity not just in “what” we do to reduce maternal mortality, but also in “how” we do it.
—Maternal Mortality Update 2004
The UNFPA-led Campaign to End Fistula is a good example of the Fund's rights-based approach in action. While the Campaign works to protect the health and rights of especially vulnerable and disenfranchised women, its work to prevent this disabling injury makes pregnancy safer for all women in the programme countries. The Campaign also calls attention to the need to educate and empower women so they have greater power to assert their rights to appropriate obstetric care.
In every region, the Fund promotes the right of women to safe delivery and legislation to ensure it. It supports innovative programmes to bring maternal care to women in remote locations as well as efforts to make whole communities 'mother friendly'. UNFPA also is committed to making safer motherhood a reality for women affected by conflict and humanitarian disasters.
As a driving force within the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, UNFPA will be working with other international and non-governmental organizations, donors, academic institutions and others to promote the right of mothers to give birth safely.