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Educating moms saves lives

As the United Nations general assembly convenes, education must be put at the top of the list of priorities.

Last Modified: 27 Sep 2013 06:55
Christy Turlington

Christy Turlington Burns is the founder of Every Mother Counts, a campaign to end preventable deaths caused by pregnancy and childbirth around the world. She is an advisor to the Harvard Medical School Global Health Council and the Harvard School of Public Health Board of Deanís Advisors.
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Healthcare and education are key to reducing maternal and infant mortality rates, Turlington Burns writes [Reuters]

For every mother, having a baby is a life-changer, but for me, it changed my life more than I could have ever imagined.

After giving birth to my first child in 2003, I found myself in a life-threatening situation when I haemorrhaged and lost a significant amount of blood. I delivered my daughter at a birthing centre in a highly rated hospital in New York City. I was cared for by a compassionate and skilled team consisting of a doula, a midwife and supporting nurses, in a safe setting that insured easy access to the obstetrician who backed them. Fortunately for me, everything was managed seamlessly and I came through safe and sound.

A call to action

As I was recovering, I learned that hundreds of thousands of mothers around the world die every year from complications just like mine or from other complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. I started to wonder what happened to all the women in the world who didn't have the quality of care that I received. I was shocked to discover that globally, at the time my baby was born, more than half-a-million women died every year from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. When I learned that nearly all of these deaths were preventable, I was outraged and then, I was called to action.

I became a global maternal health advocate the moment I became aware of this tragedy and made it my mission to understand what needed to be done to reduce maternal deaths globally. I sought out travel opportunities to meet mothers and health-care professionals around the world to find out why maternal mortality was still an issue in the 21st century and why more wasn't being done to save these women.

That mission led me to create a documentary called, "NO WOMAN, NO CRY" (2010), which told the stories of pregnant mothers in Guatemala, Tanzania, Bangladesh and the United States. It was my attempt at educating audiences through story telling about a crisis that has too little global awareness. As that film resonated with audiences all over the world, I realised my call to action needed to be even greater, so in 2010, I founded "Every Mother Counts", a campaign to help end preventable deaths in pregnancy and childbirth.

Our goal is to raise awareness about maternal health and maternal mortality and to engage audiences to take meaningful steps that make a lifesaving difference to mothers all over the world. We're in our third year now and we're encouraged that through the collective efforts of many organisations and individuals, the rate of mortality for mothers has dropped to approximately 287,000 annually.

And yet, the truth is with nearly 300,000 mothers still dying every single year from preventable causes, even one preventable death is one too many. By educating more people about the challenges and solutions, we believe we will make a lasting difference in the lives of millions and that mortality numbers will continue to drop at an even faster rate as a result.

If young girls and women are literate, they are far more likely to seek the medical care they need, to understand how to react to symptoms such as bleeding or high blood pressure, and to use low-cost practices to maintain hygiene.

Lack of adequate healthcare providers

Last spring I visited Haiti, where one of the biggest challenges is a lack of skilled healthcare providers. While there, I experienced some of the barriers women face that impact mortality rates first hand.

It only takes about three hours to fly from the US to Haiti, but the difference between our two countries couldn't be more striking. For every 100,000 babies born in Haiti, 350 mothers die in childbirth, compared with 21 mothers in the US. In Haiti there are only 25 doctors and 11 nurses for every 100,000 residents and one midwife for every 1,000 births. In the US there are about 240 doctors and 980 nurses and midwives per 100,000 residents.

The purpose of this particular trip was to visit Midwives for Haiti, a grant recipient of Every Mother Counts. Through this grant, we are training a class of 17 skilled birth attendants in the Central Plateau. These graduates will provide prenatal care to 1,500 women and deliver between 120 and 240 babies per year. To do this work, graduate and student midwives travel to far-reaching communities on unpaved roads to tend women who would otherwise have no access to skilled prenatal care. I was able to see the quality of care these student and graduate midwives are able to provide with our support, in a variety of settings.

Education is key

What always surprises me on these visits is how simple many of the solutions are for reducing maternal mortality. When I zero in on which solutions are most critical, it always comes down to education. Education for adolescent girls and young women in developing countries really is a matter of life or death. New statistics from UNESCO's Education for All Global Monitoring Report says that if all women completed primary education, the number of mothers dying in childbirth would fall dramatically, saving 189,000 lives a year. If young girls and women are literate, they are far more likely to seek the medical care they need, to understand how to react to symptoms such as bleeding or high blood pressure, and to use low-cost practices to maintain hygiene.

Armed with information, women have a far greater chance of avoiding complications such as pre-eclampsia, bleeding and infections, which are the three main contributors to maternal and new-born death.

In Kenya, education reforms have helped reduced their maternal mortality rate by 34 percent. In Nepal, 49 percent of literate mothers make sure they have a skilled attendant at birth, which greatly improves their chances of avoiding complications, compared with only 18 percent for illiterate mothers. Ensuring that every child receives a primary and secondary education also improves the odds that some of them will become future health-care specialists, but right now, 57 million children still do not have an opportunity to attend school. Most of these children are girls.

In 2000, when the Millennium Development Goals were established, 102 million children didn't have opportunities to attend school and world leaders committed to getting every child into school by 2015. We've made great progress, but we are only halfway there and we won't make the 2015 deadline set to meet the rest of the children's needs.

Financial woes

What worries me is that although we have proven we can get millions of children into school, education seems to remain an increasingly low priority and funding has been dramatically cut. There is now a financing gap of $26bn.  This figure pales in comparison to the world's military spending, estimated in 2011 to be almost $2 trillion. This week, world leaders have gathered at the United Nations to discuss which development issues should be prioritised after 2015. Education must be not only on that list, but very close to the top of it.

Everything I have seen in my own journey to understand how we can best reduce maternal mortality leads me back to education. It has a unique power to save lives and is one of the most cost effective ways of doing so. If education continues to slip down the agenda, we will lose the progress that has been made on every other development goal. This will be especially true for Millennium Development Goal 5 - to improve maternal health so that we can reduce maternal mortality.  MDG 5's progress already lags behind all of the others, which sends a very strong message about the value of mothers in the world.  We think Every Mother Counts and we think it's time the world thought so too.  

Malala Yousafzai's teacher Mariam Khalique delivered a speech in New York calling for world leaders to ensure every child gets a chance to go to school. The speech will also launch new data from UNESCO proving the impact that education can have on saving lives, promoting tolerance, boosting the economy and protecting the environment.

Christy Turlington is the founder of Every Mother Counts, a campaign to end preventable deaths caused by pregnancy and childbirth around the world.

You can follow Christy on Twitter @CTurlington.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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