Maternal mortality and human rights: a report from the Women Deliver conference 2007: Mary J Renfrew, Professor of Mother and Infant Health, works on a joint programme with the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York, UK.

Author:Renfrew, Mary J.
 
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The number of women dying as a result of pregnancy and childbirth remains shockingly high, at around half a million every year. Midwives know and understand that a woman's likelihood of surviving childbirth is dependent on her circumstances--whether or not she lives in poverty, and her access to health care, for example.

To deprive a woman of appropriate care, or not to offer it, at this vulnerable time is to increase greatly both her and her baby's likelihood of death. Yet in many countries, health services are not widely available for childbearing women.

Human rights in pregnancy and childbirth

The entitlement to receive care in pregnancy and childbirth is recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This fight is normally listed alongside others related to health, social and economic wellbeing, such as access to good nutrition, education and sanitation.

Sadly, these important needs have not received the international attention accorded to what are seen as more fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, liberty, security and recognition before the law; and freedom from torture, persecution and discrimination. These are the rights that are more often enshrined in national laws, that have been championed by human rights organisations, that receive most media coverage and that are monitored most closely by the UN. The rights to health, social care and protection from absolute poverty have not been accorded the same international status, attention and resources, despite the profound human misery that results: possibly because enabling those rights is a complex problem requiring structural changes.

Maternal mortality 'a human rights catastrophe'

During the 'Women Deliver' conference in London in November 2007, it became clear that there has been a major change internationally in the recognition of maternal mortality as a fundamental human rights issue. The scale of avoidable maternal mortality was recognised as a human rights catastrophe. Mary Robinson, international human rights advocate, said of maternal mortality, 'The time has come for us to treat this issue as a human rights violation, no less than torture, "disappearances", arbitrary detention and prisoners of conscience'. It is estimated that about 1 million people have 'disappeared' in the past 26 years. This is an extremely serious human rights...

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