Explaining Maternal Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa

In our complicated world it can be difficult, let alone exhausting, to understand and seek out information about everything going on right now. It is a cultural norm in the United States to focus on domestic issues far more than global ones, while in reality the U.S. is a small part of a very complex world. I completely understand that, so I decided to break down some global issues that I am passionate about in the simplest way possible. I hope that by doing this, I help bring attention to some causes that you may not be aware of because awareness is the most important part of the fight against any issue. For this first installment of “Explaining the Issue,” I will explain the problem surrounding maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines maternal mortality as the death of a woman while pregnant, during or after birth, or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy from any preventable cause. This problem is most prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) in 2017 was 533 deaths for every 100,00 live births. In comparison, the 2017 world MMR was 211 deaths for every 100,000 live births. This was a 38% decline from 2000 when the MMR was 342 deaths for every 100,000 live births. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 68% of maternal deaths worldwide, says UNICEF. While progress is being made worldwide due to the Millenium Development Initiative by the United Nations (UN), Sub-Saharan Africa has not seen the same level of progress in decreasing MMR as the rest of the world. 

Maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa can be divided into two root causes: the failure of the medical system and cultural hesitancy to take the steps to prevent maternal death. The medical system has failed to train care providers to prevent as well as reach high-risk patients living in rural and impoverished villages. Poverty is a massive cause of this care-gap, so women living in poverty are already at a higher risk for maternal mortality. Women living in low-income countries have a 1 in 45 chance of dying before, during, or directly after birth according to WHO. For example, the UN cites that only 1% of poor women living in Chad seek out and receive antenatal care in comparison to 53% of wealthy women. In addition to deficiencies in the medical system, Sub-Saharan Africa has rich cultural values that lead to a hesitancy in taking preventive measures for maternal death. The low status of women in the region creates problems during pregnancy, especially surrounding access to life-saving information, restriction of contraceptives, and normality of child marriage. WHO has recognized that adolescent girls ages 10 to 19 have a significantly higher risk of complications and death during pregnancy and childbirth. In Niger, 75% of girls are married before they reach the age of 18 (Source 4). In the entire Sub-Saharan Africa region, 95% of married girls under the age of 19 do not have any say in their use of contraceptives according to the UN. This inequity cannot be ignored and is leading to the death of over 200,000 women a year in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

It is important for young people in the United States to be aware of the issues facing people who live wildly different lives than them. Additionally, issues such as Maternal Mortality echo into the United States. According to the CDC, Black women are three times as likely to die during childbirth than a white women. As is the case with most pregnancy related deaths, these lives can be saved. Awareness about this issue is the first step in ending maternal related deaths around the world.