Millions of Ghanaians tune in to Ivy Prosper’s addictive television series on an unlikely subject: maternal mortality. Through a combination of studio interviews and re-enactments, highlighted with fast-paced editing and a suspenseful soundtrack, Prosper’s show, which airs on the Maternal Health Channel, tells the stories of women who get to the hospital too late, lack access to electricity and suffer from a score of other preventable factors that kill mothers during childbirth.
While the rate of women dying in childbirth has dropped by almost 44 percent over the past 25 years, numbers have stagnated in many developing countries, and have even risen in the United States, according to the latest figures from the United Nations.
Four women at the forefront of the fight to bring down those numbers joined Alyse Nelson, president and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, at the Women in the World New York Summit on Thursday for an engrossing panel sponsored by Merck for Mothers.
“Every time you heard someone was pregnant, you cringed a little because you wondered, ‘Is she going to make it? Is she going to come back?’” said Liya Kebede, an Ethiopian-born supermodel, designer and founder of The Liya Kebede Foundation, which promotes better access to maternity care. “In places like Ethiopia or other African countries, when a woman is pregnant, it is said you have one foot in the grave.”
Affectionately known as Mama Maria, Mary Gorett Musoke is a midwife in Uganda and the founder of the Maria Maternity Ward. She left a good job in the city to help women in rural areas give birth. After one woman delivered right in her living room, she opened a single-room clinic, which has since grown. The Maria Maternity Ward is now open to patients 24 hours a day.
“In a hospital, there are so many others who can look after you, but in a community you are left to other women, whether they know [what they are doing] or not. The baby cannot wait,” said Musoke. Most of her clients are poor; those who are well-off compensate for the ones who cannot pay. “Even if you are poor, you need something good,” Musoke said. “Just because you are poor, you are not [required] to bleed to death.”
Hygiene during childbirth as well as afterwards is a major factor in maternal mortality. A disproportionate number of women are killed by infections or excessive bleeding, two problems with relatively simple solutions.
Zubaida Bai, president and chief executive of Ayzh, was inspired to start her company after meeting a midwife in India who said she used a glass-cutting tool to cut the umbilical cord. “I just couldn’t take what I was seeing and that led to the discovery of clean birth kits,” Bai said.
Bai, who is an engineer, began to make cheap, clean birthing kits in 2012. As of the end of March 2016, 270,000 of her kits are out in the market.
All four women agreed that solutions to lower maternal mortality rates can be low-cost and simple. “We can’t reduce the maternal mortality with health workers alone,” said Musoke. “We need to bring on husbands, wives, community and what have you. The maternal mortality rate has been stuck. We need to work together so that we bring this down.”