In this country, where we are used to discussions about motherhood focusing largely on lifestyle choices (stay-at-home v working mothers; breastfeeding v formula; yummy v slummy mummies), it's easy to forget that for women in large parts of the world, having a child is literally a matter of life or death.
When I was pregnant I lost count of the number of people who tried to reassure me about the daunting prospect of labour by saying: "It's the most natural thing in the world - women in Africa just squat down and give birth in the fields then go right back to work". Or similar.
Quite apart from being not very reassuring and pretty offensive, this picture just isn't true. The World Health Organisation says that complications during pregnancy and childbirth are one of the leading causes of death and disability among women of reproductive age in developing countries. Most women who die while pregnant or after having a termination (99 per cent in 2008) live in developing countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
This is a matter of fierce debate in New York this week, where world leaders are gathered at a UN summit to discuss progress towards the eight millennium development goals – a set of targets aimed at reducing global poverty which were agreed in 2000 with a deadline of 2015.
The goals include reducing maternal mortality by three quarters, as well as achieving universal access to reproductive healthcare, halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, providing universal primary education and ending gender discrimination in education. Progress has been mixed, with action on maternal mortality being particularly slow.
Development charities have argued for years that women hold the key to ending global poverty. The fact is that you cannot improve children's nutrition, make sure they get vaccinated, ensure they go to school and improve their standards of living without making sure their mothers survive bringing them into the world.
So it is heartening that the summit looks likely to endorse the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon's strategy of focusing on the health of women and their young children as a way of meeting the goals. His rationale is simple: mothers, on the whole, are the ones who will make sure their children are looked after above and beyond anything else.
Despite our understandable trepidation, pregnant women in the UK can go into labour safe in the knowledge that skilled people will do everything they can to make sure their baby is delivered safely and that, if there are complications, both they and their babies will have the medical attention they need. Women in large parts of the world do not have that luxury. As the former prime minister's wife Sarah Brown put it in an interview with The Guardian at the weekend: "There is an African proverb that a pregnant woman has one foot in the grave. This is the biggest health gap in the world today – and one of the greatest injustices."
By: Laura Smith
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