How can we improve maternal and newborn health for girls, women and children around the world?

Tackle child, early and forced marriage.

Last month, world leaders came together and agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals that will shape our world until 2030. The third of these, to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, includes the following targets:

  • By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births
  • By 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births

In a world where each day, 800 women die from complications before, during or after pregnancy, and the annual infant mortality rate remains at 4.5 million, these targets have the potential to change the fate of millions of girls, women and children.

Maternal and newborn health remain inextricably linked to the practice of child, early and forced marriage (CEFM), and progress cannot be made without a widespread understanding of the connection. According to Plan International’s ‘A girl’s right to say no to marriage’, most adolescent pregnancies take place within marriage. Child, early and forced marriage is therefore not only a serious violation of girls’ and women’s rights, but a global health issue to be tackled at community, national and global level as part of the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.

For adolescent girls, the risk of complication during pregnancy and childbirth is dangerously high – miscarriage, obstructed labour and obstetric fistula are a few examples from a list of many. Babies born to young mothers have a higher chance of being stillborn or premature, and girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.

The social pressure on girls who have been married early, or who have been forced into marriage, intensifies the risks to health and wellbeing. In many communities, the expectation that a new bride will have frequent pregnancies from the beginning of her marriage puts immeasurable strain on both her body and her mind, and removes any choice she might otherwise have over her own reproduction.

If maternal and newborn health is to see sustainable improvement by 2030, focused efforts must be made to end CEFM. We already have a reason to celebrate, as the practice is mentioned specifically within Goal 5 (“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”):

  • Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Next week global leaders, advocates and policy-makers are convening at the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference in Mexico City, where they will come together and discuss how to protect the health of mothers and children around the world. Child, early and forced marriage is one lens of many through which maternal and newborn health can be looked at, but if we consider that a 10% reduction in child marriage could be associated with a 70%, it certainly seems like an important view.


Girls’ Globe will be attending the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference and provide live coverage through blog posts, Twitter, Instagram, Periscope and more. Follow along using #GlobalMNH.

Featured image: DFID, UNFPA and Plan International are working in Zambia to end child marriage through education, advocacy and policy work. Photo: Jessica Lea/DFIF. 

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