In 2008, over half a million women died from complications stemming from pregnancy and childbirth. After ten years of campaigning, maternal mortality rates have dropped, but as of 2018 there are still more than 300,000 deaths attributed to maternal mortality each year. By the numbers, a woman dies from maternal health issues every two minutes. Over the course of a one-hour seminar, that’s thirty childbirth-related deaths.
And the worst part? Most of these deaths are easily preventable with modern medicine.
Founded in 2010 by Christy Turlington Burns, Every Mother Counts is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for everyone around the world.
On Tuesday, April 16th, Burns and Nan Strauss (EMC’s Director of Policy & Advocacy) presented during the latest iteration of the WMM Speaker Series, a recurring discussion program where members of Women Moving Millions, a global network of more than 300 women who have each pledged to donate at least $1 million to charity, discuss current topical issues with external experts and thought leaders.
Hosted by WMM’s Executive Director Sarah Haacke Byrd, Tuesday’s webinar showcased the efforts of Every Mother Counts as the organization’s team works to combat maternal mortality rates worldwide.
“I like to say that I became a global maternal health advocate the day I became a mother,” said Burns, as she told her story of the complications that arose after the birth of her daughter. Burns suffered from a rare post-birth condition known as a retained placenta, but the experienced medical team at her New York hospital was able to handle the situation easily and efficiently, ensuring Burns’s health and the health of her baby.
After the experience, Burns realized that she was far from alone in experiencing childbirth complications. She took a humanitarian trip to Central America while pregnant with her second child, and made connections with other mothers who had limited access to clean water, electricity, and paved roads, with the nearest hospital a few hours away.
“Had I been in this community,” Burns realized, “I probably wouldn’t have survived.”
After her time in Central America, one question resonated — “What could I do?”
In 2008, she started with No Woman, No Cry, a documentary film that highlighted the maternal mortality crisis through first-person narratives and true storytelling. The documentary came out in 2010, and Burns founded Every Mother Counts in the same year, determined to break down the barriers between mothers and the quality care they need and deserve.
Today, Every Mother Counts is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supporting 11 grantee partners in 6 countries. By bringing everyday individuals into the conversation surrounding maternal mortality, Every Mother Counts helps supporters around the world understand the size of this problem, and identify ways that they can make a difference.
Since 2010, efforts to curb maternal mortality have made an impact — but nowhere near enough.
According to Nan Strauss, the Director of Policy & Advocacy, most of the complications that arise from pregnancy and childbirth are easily treatable with the medical care available today. However, there are three major barriers preventing women from seeking the care they need: lack of access, hesitation, and quality.
Strauss explained that women around the world, especially women of color and indigenous populations, face a lack of access to prenatal and postnatal care based on the distance they need to travel or the money they need to pay to receive care. On the other hand, women and families who do have access to maternal healthcare are often hesitant to go, based on the mistreatment, disrespect, and even outright abuse other women have faced at the hands of the doctors who are supposed to be delivering quality care.
And this isn’t just in developing countries.
In 2008, the United States ranked 41st in having the highest maternal mortality rates around the world. As of 2018, although the number of deaths had dropped by almost 40%, the United States’ ranking dropped to 46th.
When organizations around the world have made efforts to improve, why has the situation gotten worse in the United States?
Strauss identified the culprit as “too much, too soon and too little, too late.” Healthcare providers in some areas have developed an over-reliance on intervention techniques like Caesarian sections — which can lead to post-birth complications that can be fatal without proper care — while efforts in other areas have been lackluster.
“We need to change the approach of how we’re addressing these issues,” said Strauss. “Respectful treatment is really growing in terms of the impact that it has on outcomes. We have people telling us globally and in the U.S. that they receive insufficient information, their concerns are dismissed, ignored, or they’re threatened with retaliation or told their baby is going to die regardless of whether they’re actually putting their babies at risk. The right to participate in decisions and consent to care is not respected or recognized.”
So what can be done?
Burns noted that the simple measures are often the most effective — making sure that the attending doctor speaks the patient’s language, or has a translator available. Respecting cultural birth traditions while ensuring proper medical care is another method that has improved mortality rates around the world.
In the same way, new legislation can protect mothers and their rights by holding countries and healthcare providers accountable for their actions.
Over the past decade, Every Mother Counts has been instrumental in the promotion and advancement of two bills that protect mothers in the United States. The Preventing Maternal Deaths Act seeks to improve the funding streams for maternal mortality review boards (multicultural organizations that identify trends in maternal deaths in their areas and promote preventative strategies), while the Improving Access to Maternity Care Act helps address and fill gaps in areas suffering from a shortage of maternity care.
“After eight or nine years,” said Strauss, “it was really quite amazing and very satisfying to see that progress.”
Today, the organization promotes its mission through events and campaigns that highlight awareness around respectful care, like the Mom Congress, an education and advocacy conference held in May that will bring mothers together to speak to elected officials on Capitol Hill.
Every Mother Counts presenting during WMM’s Speaker Series marks just one way that platforms can work together to support their initiatives — both organizations leverage the supporter bases of the other, and reach new heights of philanthropic outreach that neither could achieve alone.
Maternal mortality affects people everywhere, not just the women who suffer serious complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, but their families, friends, and neighbors as well. Only by working together to raise awareness, spread education, and work toward achievable solutions can we find a path forward that eliminates so many easily preventable deaths.
To discover the impact of feminist philanthropy on women’s healthcare and advocacy around the world, learn how one organization is working to eradicate female genital mutilation, or discover how feminist philanthropy can help address the backlog of untested rape kits.