A study published this week in The Lancet claims female deaths due to pregnancy-related causes fell globally by a stunning 35% since 1980, with India among the countries reporting a steady reduction in the number of such deaths.
The maternal mortality rate is an important indicator of women’s health in a country, and has implications for their socio-economic well-being. Past research has painted a dire picture of this issue. A World Health Organization report in May, for example, showed no noticeable improvement in maternal health in the last 20 years. In comparison, the Lancet study marks a leap towards better care for women.
In India’s case, the study says maternal deaths fell to 154-395 per 100,000 live births in 2008—a considerable improvement from the 408-1,080 level seen in 1980. Nevertheless, India in 2008 still figured prominently among the six nations that account for half the maternal deaths globally, even though it was well ahead of the other five—Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo—in terms of per capita income. This is anomalous because for a country with India’s level of economic development, a high maternal mortality rate implies low social and healthcare development levels, especially when it has seen long periods of political stability. Post-invasion Iraq, in comparison, saw a rise in maternal deaths as its healthcare infrastructure struggled to recover from the war.
To be sure, innovative schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojana—which pays women to opt for institutional child delivery methods—or accredited social health activists—who are paid to assist women in childbirth and post-natal care—have had some effect. But pregnant women in a number of backward regions of the country still lack fast access to modern healthcare services.
As the Lancet study shows, lower pregnancy rates, higher income and better education for women the world over contributed to the lower mortality rates. There is a lesson here for India: Better education for women raises awareness levels, generates employment opportunities and reduces childbearing rates. These, in turn, have positive externalities for women’s health and their socio-economic condition, and for the larger economy. As India moves to empower its women, it will need to think deeper about these issues.
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