The Vulnerabilities of Being Pregnant

Women face unique challenges throughout their lives. For some, one such challenge can be pregnancy. It is an exciting and beautiful time, but it can also be a major test on the strength of a woman’s body and mind.

Did you know a woman’s socioeconomic status has a surprising amount of influence, not just on her baby, but also on how her pregnancy goes? Childbirth outcomes are heavily tied to socioeconomics, with women in more impoverished regions experiencing a wide range of additional challenges.

While some of these challenges are health-related, others are not. Many factors combine for a successful pregnancy and birth, and an individual’s financial situation has a huge impact. Of course, most people can’t just change their financial standing quickly, and so we need to examine ways we can change the culture around pregnancy.

In countries that lack universal health care, financial status has a significant impact on prenatal outcomes. Merely being able to afford regular medical checkups, prenatal vitamins and any additional medications can significantly increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby. It’s impossible to understate how important prenatal care is.

Access to medical care goes beyond prenatal care, though. Women in lower socioeconomic classes tend to be less likely to be able to access health care before becoming pregnant, which also contributes to the health outcomes of the child. Even with socialized health care, the risks remain, because money affects every aspect of our lives.

Women can also suffer in countries without socialized health care. One U.S. case, for example, shows how insurance companies took advantage of pregnant women who qualified for government-funded Medicaid. The companies claimed to give the women coverage, then denied their claims while still collecting the money from the government. This is just one case that demonstrates how willing people and companies can be to take advantage of those in ‘vulnerable’ positions.

There are many countries where access to quality prenatal care should not be an issue. Universal health care should eliminate the barrier, but it doesn’t stop women from having problems. As some studies have demonstrated, even with socialized health care, pregnant women in lower income brackets tend to have more challenging pregnancies, including problems like preeclampsia, premature birth and obstetrical hemorrhage.

Lower incomes make women more vulnerable to things like stress, domestic violence, poor personal health choices and drug use. It has been shown that stress is one of the precursors to birth issues like premature birth and low birth weight.

Studies also show that women experiencing poverty are more likely to experience abuse from their partner. This abuse often occurs alongside other issues, like financial dependence on the abuser and isolation from a support network. The stress, isolation and risk of hospitalization all take a serious toll. Women who are pregnant and have been in the relationship for a while may see violence escalate during their pregnancy.

The problems related to having a new baby don’t just impact the mom and baby. They’re a serious issue for everyone in society as well. Pregnant women are certainly in a place of high vulnerability, but they are not weak links. Women make up half of the population, so we need to address the gendered issues at play.

Addressing the reasons behind the systemic problems that women and new moms face will undeniably lead us to a better and healthier tomorrow for everyone.

Child Marriage: Enough is Enough

Child marriage remains one of the most horrific human rights violations that exists today. It is estimated that globally 14 million girls are married off before the age of 18, robbing them of their childhood and leaving them vulnerable to violence, poverty, domestic slavery, sexual assault and HIV/AIDS. Child marriage is a human rights violation that cuts across countries, cultures, religions and ethnicities.

The recent news coverage of the 8-year-old girl who was married off to a 40-year-old man in Yemen, poignantly highlights the desperate need to outlaw child marriage. After their wedding night, the 8-year-old girl – identified as “Rawan” – died from torn genitals and severe bleeding in the northwest city of Hardh. According to media accounts, the fatal injuries were incurred through sexual intercourse. Let me emphasize that it was NOT sexual intercourse. It was rape and it should be clearly understood as so.  Rawan’s tragic story is sadly not unique and millions of girls die every year from injuries incurred from sexual violence.

Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)
Image Courtesy of Gerry & Bonni on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Furthermore, as a result of child marriage, these girls are at far greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Yemen has a high maternal mortality rate of 370 deaths per 100,000 live births. Reproductive health studies show that young women face greater risks in pregnancy than older women, including life-threatening obstructed labour due to adolescents’ smaller pelvises. The shortage of prenatal and postnatal healthcare services, especially in Yemen’s rural areas, place girls’ and women’s lives at risk. An overwhelming majority of Yemeni women still deliver at home, often without the assistance of a skilled birth attendant capable of handling childbirth emergencies. Girls who marry young often have insufficient information on family planning or worse, none at all. As young wives they find it difficult to assert themselves against older husbands to negotiate family planning methods.

Human Rights Watch reports that 14% of girls in Yemen are married before age 15, with 82% married before age 18. Child marriage is in fact legal in Yemen; however, in light of the recent cases and international media attention, Yemen Parliamentarians are calling for new laws which ban child marriage, set the minimum age for marriage at 18 ,and implement strategic measures to effectively enact the law. Speaking in an interview with CNN, Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s human rights minister stated,

Many child marriages take place every year in Yemen. It’s time to end this practice.”

In order to fully eliminate child marriage, awareness raising of the negative impacts of this human rights violation must be conducted. There are a magnitude of elements that contribute to child marriage including lack of awareness and understanding. One father who married off his young daughter spoke to Human Rights Watch and declared that if he knew then what he knows now he would never have married off his daughter.

In many cases, the reality of poverty plays a big role in the decision to marry off a daughter. Here are a few examples of how poverty impacts child marriage:

  • Marrying a girl child means one less family member to feed, clothe and educate.
  • The bride’s family receives a hefty dowdy/bride price for a young girl, or in those instances where the bride’s family pays the groom a dowry, they often have to pay less money if the bride is young and uneducated. Sometimes the daughters are actually sold to pay off debts.

Another huge determinant of child marriage is tradition. Child marriage is a traditional practice in many countries and cultures around the world, and breaking tradition can alienate families from the rest of the community. However in the words of Graca Machel, member of The Elders and a major contributor to the founding of Girls Not Brides,

Traditions are made by us – and we can decide to change them. We should be respectful but we must also have the courage to stop harmful practices that impoverish girls, women and their communities.”

One 11 year old Yemeni girl decided to break away from tradition and challenged her own parents when they arranged for her to be married to an older man. Nada al-Ahdal caught the attention of the world when she uploaded a three minute video on YouTube after she escaped from your family and took refuge at her uncle’s house.

The world needs more Nada al-Ahdal’s but can we really leave eight, nine, ten, and eleven-year-olds to defend themselves? Nada is one of the rare and lucky girls’ who successfully avoided child marriage but there are millions who are not so lucky. Hence, we need to make a change and advocate for child marriage to be fully outlawed and recognised as a human rights violation. Thousands of NGOs, human rights defenders, women and girls have been advocating to end child marriage for years and, although change will not come over night, we must keep on and remember the Rawan’s of the world.

Take Action:

Girls Not Brides

Every Woman Every Child

Other Useful Websites:

Human Rights Watch

UNFPA

Mothers Make This World Go Around

Today, the world is celebrating Mother’s Day. Earlier this week, Save the Children published its “State of the World’s Mothers” report, ranking DR Congo as the worst place in the world for mothers – and my home country, Finland, as the best.

I am not surprised. Having grown up in Finland, I have high appreciation towards the Finnish social and health care services, many of which are geared towards mothers. Finnish mothers have access to affordable sexual, reproductive and prenatal health care services, which make pregnancy and child birth safe and happy experiences to most mothers in Finland. The fact that these services are currently out of reach for millions of women around the world represents a global tragedy not only for mothers, but for families and for entire societies.

Emma&MamaMy mother has been an amazing influence in my life. Not once have I, or my sisters, felt that we didn’t have her full support behind us. She never stopped supporting us, believing in us, encouraging us – and most importantly, we have always known how much she loves us. Much has been said about mothers’ love, and for a good reason: it is a force to be reckoned with, one that has the power to safely guide children through the biggest challenges and obstacles. That is what my mother has done for me and my sisters – given us guidance and support, so that we never have to worry about getting lost. I know I can always turn to her for help, advice and support, no matter how far I am, and no matter how old I get.

Mothers all over the world do this, every single day. They wake up in the morning ready to take on multiple roles as wives, as workers, as cleaners, as cooks, as entrepreneurs, as farmers – and as mothers. While juggling these various roles, they nurture and care for their children, and protect their children from harm. The love of a mother does not depend on a country, and there is no doubt that vast majority of actions taken by mothers around the world are driven by one thing – mothers’ love for their children. That love alone can, and has, performed miracles, and continues to do so every day all over the world.

Simply put, Mothers make this world go around.

Mothers are defying odds bringing up their children in the most challenging conditions, pushing through difficulties, danger and sometimes even death. While being a good mother does not depend on where you live, those support structures that countries like Finland have in place are absolutely necessary for mothers all over the world, so that they can enjoy healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries, and raise healthy, happy, educated and nourished children despite the country they live in. When I was born, my mother continued to bleed heavily after the delivery and reached a fairly critical condition. Had I been born in a different country, with inadequate or inaccessible health care services, my mother probably would not have survived. She would have been an incredible mother despite where I was born – but she might be alive today because I was born in a country with proper maternal and prenatal health care. Every mother in the world deserves this.

Every mother in the world deserves a safe pregnancy, a safe delivery, and a chance to see their children grow up healthy and happy. No woman should ever have to fear for losing their own life while giving birth to a new one.

Mothers around the world are performing miracles for their children every day. We, as societies, as families, and as individuals, owe it to mothers to honor them every single day for that, and to step up and provide mothers with the support and services they need and deserve. That is neither “charity” nor “welfare” – through supporting mothers, we support families and we support societies. It is simply common sense – and more than that, it is our responsibility and duty. Mothers all over the world deserve that, and so much more.

Happy Mother’s Day to my own, amazing and inspiring mother – If I one day become half of the mother that she has been to me, I_MG_0860_2 will consider myself the greatest mother on earth.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mothers around the world as well – none of us would be where we are today without you. You truly do make this world go around.

If you want to find ways to support Mother’s around the world, here are a few organizations, initiatives and groups focusing on mothers that are currently participating in the Raise for Women challenge:

Don’t forget to check out the resources on the Women Deliver website’s Knowledge Center on maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and remember to let us know if you will be attending the conference – we would love to hear from you!

For more information, here are some resources on maternal health: