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June 18th, 2009

Maternal Mortality is a Pressing Human Rights Concern

Today, the Human Rights Council at its eleventh regular session adopted a landmark resolution on “Preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and human rights.”  In this resolution, governments express grave concern for the unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, acknowledge that this is a human rights issue, and commit to enhance their efforts at the national and international level to protect the lives of women and girls worldwide.  ­­Over 70 UN member states co-sponsored this resolution, led by Colombia and New Zealand.

“This is a groundbreaking step towards ensuring every woman’s basic human right to a safe and healthy pregnancy and childbirth,” said Ximena Andion, the International Advocacy Director at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which was one the organizations promoting the resolution. “Governments should heed the call of the Human Rights Council and take urgent action to prevent women from dying needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth.”

Globally, maternal mortality is the leading cause of death among women and girls of reproductive age.  More than 1500 women and girls die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth; that translates to around 550,000 annually. While it is difficult to measure pregnancy-related injuries and disabilities, estimates vary from 16 to 50 million annually, and include conditions such as haemorrhage, infection, brain seizures, hypertension, anaemia and obstetric fistulae.

Yet, it has taken fifteen years since the adoption of the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, fourteen since the Fourth World Conference on Women Platform for Action, and nine since the Millennium Development Goals--all significant United Nations’ consensus documents recognizing the need to increase efforts promoting the health and rights of women and girls--for the UN’s main political human rights body to take this important step. Globally, governments have failed to meet the commitments made and targets set in these documents.

Through the Human Rights Council resolution, governments recognize that the elimination of maternal mortality and morbidity requires the effective promotion and protection of women and girls’ human rights, including their rights to life; to be equal in dignity; to education; to be free to seek, receive, and impart information; to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress; to freedom from discrimination; and to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including sexual and reproductive health.

“Adolescent girls and young women need greater access to information, education, services and resources that will empower them to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, including contraceptive use, safe abortion, birth spacing, pre- and post- natal care, and management of pregnancy and childbirth related complications,” said Neha Sood, Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights’ member from India. “This resolution highlights the need for governments to promote and protect women and girls’ rights to seek and receive such information, education and services and have access to resources.”

Furthermore, the resolution stresses that a human rights-based approach makes efforts against maternal mortality and morbidity more effective and sustainable.  The resolution commissions a study by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to examine the human rights dimensions of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity, and how the Council can contribute to addressing this problem.

“By supporting this resolution, governments have affirmed the right of women and girls to receive care before, during, and after pregnancy and childbirth, and to survive these experiences without illness or disability,” said Sandeep Prasad, Human Rights Advisor with Action Canada for Population and Development, who has been actively engaged in promoting the issue of maternal mortality at the Human Rights Council. “We are hopeful that this will be the start of the Human Rights Council taking an active role in the global effort to eliminate all preventable maternal deaths and injuries.”

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