Maternal death and injury are largely preventable, yet the World Health Organisation reports that every day, about 1 000 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of these deaths occurring in developing countries, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said at the annual Helen Kanzira Memorial Lecture hosted by the University of Pretoria's Faculty of Law Centre for Human Rights.
She noted that, although there has been good progress, Goal 5 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on reducing maternal mortality and morbidity is still the most off-track of the MDGs.
Pillay stated that the MDGs were the closest the UN got to setting goals on how it was going to deliver on health. “The target they set on the goal ‘Maternal Mortality’ is to try and save 50 000 lives each year, which to human rights people is absurd. You should aim to save every life,” she lamented.
The eight MDGs, which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015, form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. They have galvanised unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.
However, Pillay said the UN was "not near at all” on availability of antiretroviral drugs for HIV. In fact, she said, there is still a denial that the illness exists.
Women and girls, meanwhile, continue to experience human rights violations, with many across the globe lacking access to life-saving health services. “Some of these services are required only by women because of their reproductive functions, yet these are often underprioritised and underfunded, which translates into fatal consequences,” Pillay said.
In South Africa, 410 women die for every 100 000 live births, while some 41 children die for every 1 000 births. The numbers increase significantly in developing nations, with developed nations reporting significantly fewer deaths.
Pillay urged society to recognise women’s rights to have control over their sexuality and the right to choose when to have children. She noted that South Sudan recorded the highest incidence of death of girls under the age of 15, based on that country’s refusal to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a comprehensive international treaty addressing women’s rights in political, economic, social, cultural and family life.
Pillay noted, too, that early marriage in several developing countries was usually accompanied by early childbirth, significantly increasing the risk of mortality in girls under the age of 15.
“Maternal health services are underfunded and often inaccessible, while a lack of knowledge of such services, as well as when to seek advice and help, greatly increase maternal mortality and morbidity.
“Maternal deaths and injuries are preventable, and measures need to be implemented to ensure that such deaths do not occur. Failure to meet these obligations can be fatal,” she concluded.