Mothers Need More Than a Day

FAITH IN ACTION By Katherine Marshall Mother’s Day sees outpourings of affection, funny stories, floral tributes on the Google home … Continued


By Katherine Marshall

Mother’s Day sees outpourings of affection, funny stories, floral tributes on the Google home page, and a blizzard of phone calls and emails. There’s something wonderfully universal in the sentiments, the ritual but warm tributes and the somewhat sheepish acknowledgment of the vital role that mothers play. They keep daily life together, serving up Cheerios and bandaging skinned knees, at the same time that they convey the basic values that guide our lives. Mothers like Ann Dunham Soetoro, who yanked Barack Obama out of bed at 4 a.m. to do extra lessons despite his grumbles, are recognized, for one day anyway, as the pillars of families and life.

So it is rather jarring to juxtapose Mother’s Day sentiment with some grim realities of our world. Life for most mothers in today’s world is pretty harsh.

In the year 2000 the world’s leaders committed themselves to noble goals: “We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want”, reads the Millennium Declaration. Specific goals were fixed, with deadlines, responsible parties, and numbers to make it possible to judge. The goals are bold – never in human history has the human race been free from want. Yet they can also be viewed as somewhat minimal and even tepid – is it good enough to halve poverty? To limit the education goal to primary level?

It is true and tragic that of all the goals the one with the least progress to show is one that seems so very basic – reducing maternal mortality. A woman dies every minute in pregnancy or childbirth. That means over 500,000 every year. An estimated one million newborns die within their first 24 hours of life.

The largest health inequity in the world is differences in the rates of maternal mortality: 99% of maternal deaths are in developing countries – half of them in Africa. A woman in Niger faces a 1 in 7 chance during her lifetime of dying of pregnancy-related causes; a woman in Sweden has 1 chance in 17,400.

We have the knowledge to change the situation, and we have a sacred global compact to do so, yet progress on MDG Goal 5, reducing maternal mortality by 75% and assuring family planning services to all, lags behind the pack.

The dramatic changes in many countries, the United States among them of course, that have made death in childbirth rare and horrifying, show that it is possible. What’s needed is a specific focus on the problem. That includes a host of well known and tested measures like robust needs assessments, solid estimates of costs, family planning services, and training and compensation of qualified medical personnel. It’s not easy but it is eminently possible.

So why does this goal which would seem so urgent and straightforward, lag behind? It may be that leaders and planners, and those who shape conscience and priorities, do not realize there’s a problem. So let’s remind them.

But it is also that these seemingly technical matters–allocations of budgets, decisions on who gets trained, how much people get paid, where clinics are built, and what equipment they have–are shaped by the deep attitudes that can’t be divorced from the unequal treatment of women in many societies, still today. The end-of-the-line problem of inadequate budgets starts with failures to push for girls’ education, to stop child marriage, to care about women’s health and welfare. In short, with failure to take the steps that can lead to the true equality that world leaders profess is their earnest goal.

Women’s issues simply do not top the priority lists. This should be an outrage to everyone’s conscience because everyone plays a part.

So, on this Mother’s Day, let’s renew our common commitment to make mothers a true priority. We have a date for this time next year: let’s ask ourselves how much progress has been made on maternal mortality as a test of whether we mean what we say when we make that wish for a “Happy Mother’s Day”.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.

By Katherine Marshall | 
May 10, 2009; 11:02 PM ET

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Faith in Action

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