Addressing Maternal Mortality from a Human Rights Perspective

Since the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals, the development world has made some impressive strides in addressing maternal health. Maternal mortality rates have reduced by 45% since 1990, and the role of global health practitioners and advocates has been commendable.

However, our work is far from over. Today, almost 300,000 women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. Of these deaths, 99% occur in the developing world, and almost 90% are preventable. Reversing this trend will require recognizing that surviving pregnancy and childbirth is a fundamental human right, which should not be contingent upon a woman’s age, where she lives, or her income level. In From Risk to Rights: Realizing States’ Obligations to Prevent and Address Maternal Mortality, a new publication by the Center for Reproductive Rights, this obligation is clearly outlined.

The publication takes a critical look at how preventable maternal mortality and morbidity came to be recognized as violations of human rights, and recognizes the key role sexual and reproductive rights advocates have played in drawing global attention to these issues. Released during the UN Human Rights Council’s September session, the document details concrete measures implemented to realize the right to safe pregnancy and childbirth.

Too often, maternal mortality and mobility results from preventable causes like inadequate transportation, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health education and poor maternal health care. In many cases in developing countries, traditional and cultural beliefs, and economic and social statuses, can also play pivotal roles in whether or not women receive adequate care.

To uphold international human rights norms and obligations, states are required to observe the right to life (protecting individuals from arbitrary and preventable loss of life, including maternal death), right to health, and state obligations of protecting, providing and fulfilling the rights to safe pregnancy and childbirth. These are applicable in all countries across the world, and the global advocacy community can apply knowledge of these rights to mitigate maternal mortality and morbidity injustices at all levels of development.

Below are some of the publication's key recommendations for tackling maternal mortality at national levels:

  • Government actors and states should promptly implement rights-based approaches to preventing maternal mortality and morbidity in line with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)’s  Technical Guidance.
  • States should take targeted measures to guarantee women substantive equality in order to enable them exercise their human rights and seek redress where their rights are violated. Such measures include addressing gender roles, stereotypes and power dynamics.
  • States should guarantee women, particularly marginalized groups of women, meaningful participation in the development and implementation of all laws, policies and programs affecting their health, including those designed to address maternal mortality and morbidity.
  • States should guarantee accountability and redress by enshrining the rights to life, health and gender equality into law and ensure that these rights are both enforceable and justiciable, and ensuring that meaningful and effective administrative and judicial remedies are in place and that they are accessible, affordable, and available to women.

Read the full report here.

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