International Day for Maternal Health and Rights: A Call for Action

Post written by Serra Sippel and Bergen Cooper.

The International Day for Maternal Health and Rights was launched in 2014 by the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) with other global sexual and reproductive health and rights organizations with support growing every year since.

On behalf of the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights Steering Committee (including the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Ibis Reproductive Health, Maternal Health Task Force, Pathfinder International, and The White Ribbon Alliance) we are calling on the United Nations to support universal, comprehensive, respectful, and rights-based maternal health by officially recognizing April 11th as International Day for Maternal Health and Rights.

Maternal rights violations continue to persist and the United Nations’ recognition of this day would bring much-needed attention and funding to address health and rights challenges so many women face.

Approximately 303,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth each year, and most of these deaths are preventable. Over the past decade the evidence for how women too often experience disrespect and abuse during childbirth has grown. Women’s experiences in pregnancy and childbirth are complex. Where they live, their provider experience, local laws and customs are all factors in what makes up each woman’s unique experience. These factors can negatively affect women and we must stand with them and their right to respectful care.

Supporting maternal health and rights not only empowers women but their children and communities too. The Zika virus, to take just one example, is a threat to women, children, and families around the world. It threatens women during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum. However, the World Health Organization no longer classifies it as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” There is good cause for concern that Zika will soon be ignored, leaving women without critical information and care. Official recognition of the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights would help alleviate this problem.

A new threat to maternal health and rights is President Trump’s global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy. The new policy prohibits foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. global health assistance from using non-U.S. funds to counsel, refer or provide women with information or services related to abortion. Studies of past global gag rules have shown that the policy is associated with increased unsafe abortion and decreased access to contraceptives. With the new global gag rule expanding across all global health assistance, we anticipate that the health impact on women trying to space pregnancies safely and those who are pregnant could be dire.

The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and other countries have already stepped up to help fill the funding gap that Trump’s global gag rule has left when it comes to life-saving reproductive health services. By recognizing April 11th as International Maternal Health and Rights Day, the United Nations would signal to the world that it also intends to increase its attention to the health and rights of women globally.

The United Nations has the power to amplify the voices of women worldwide. This year, as we commemorate the fourth annual International Day for Maternal Health and Rights, we look to you for timely, necessary, and permanent official recognition.

Break Barriers to Maternal Health and Rights from CHANGE on Vimeo.

Cover photo credit: Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)

#2 – The Zika Virus: A Threat and an Opportunity

Because of the growing worry over the Zika virus and particularly the risks it may pose to pregnant women and their babies, we dedicated the second episode of The Mom Pod to this topic. To explore both the medical side of the virus as well as the connections of this epidemic to poverty, women’s rights and gender equality, Emma interviewed Dr. Anthony Costello, the Director of the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health at the World Health Organization (WHO) and Alaka Basu, a demographer and a Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation.

While both interview subjects agreed that the epidemic is of serious concern, particularly to pregnant women and women who lack the ability to control their reproductive choices and therefore might not be able to avoid pregnancy, whether wanted or unwanted – the epidemic also poses an opportunity to amplify and elevate the public discussion about women’s right to sexual, reproductive and family planning services.

If there is anything positive to be found from the Zika virus outbreak, it is the fact that it has brought the contraception discussion to the forefront of global media. Also, as pointed out by Ms. Basu during our interview, while mosquitoes don’t pick their victims based on income levels, poor people have much less control over their neighborhoods, hygiene and surroundings that wealthy people, and therefore are often at much higher risk of mosquito bites. Poor women also lack access not only to sexual and reproductive health services, but to proper and high quality neonatal, post-natal and pediatric services – despite of whether they are carrying a healthy baby, or a baby with a developmental defect.

The problems that the Zika outbreak has brought to the surface are not new, but because of the epidemic are now being seen in a new light. Let’s hope that one of the outcomes of this situation is expanded, accessible and affordable access to family planning services, contraceptives and safe and legal abortion to women not only in the countries affected currently, but everywhere in the world. Both Dr. Costello and Ms. Basu also pointed out that in addition to worrying about women who are at risk of infection, we also need to pay more attention to the families who are already affected by a child born with microcephaly and ensure that these families get all the support services and health care services they need to ensure that their children can have the best possible chance at a healthy and happy life.

Even children with brain abnormalities can often do remarkably in terms of coping with the brain that they have – and we need to maximize the chances that their childhood development is good. I think we have to pay attention to that affected group as well.

Dr. Anthony Costello, WHO

Listen to the podcast to find out what these two experts had to say about the epidemic – but for your convenience, we have compiled the key takeaways from this episode, as well as important resources with up-to-date, factual information about the virus and the epidemic below.

You can also listen to The Mom Pod on iTunes.

Key Takeaways

  • Most people infected by the Zika virus will experience very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all
  • In some cases the Zika virus may pass through the placenta to the baby and could potentially cause birth defects, such as microcephaly – however, the link has not yet been confirmed
  • There is cause to believe that in rare cases the virus may be transmitted through sexual intercourse
  • Pregnant women who live in Zika affected areas should take all possible measures to protect themselves from mosquito bites
  • Women who are pregnant and have planned a trip to Zika affected areas should talk with their healthcare providers, and if possible, postpone their trip to best ensure the safety of their babies
  • Priority measures should include containing the breeding of the mosquitoes, and preventing bites through measures such as wearing clothing that covers up as much of your skin as possible, using insect repellant with DEET and covering up windows, open doorways and beds with mosquito nets

Additional Resources


Cover photo credit: Stephan Bachenheimer/ World Bank

Zika Virus: The hypocrisy of telling women to delay pregnancy

Featured image: Marcos Freitas/Flickr, Creative Commons

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ve probably seen headlines about the Zika virus outbreak which began in Brazil and is now spreading to other countries in Latin America. The virus is spread through mosquito bites, and common symptoms of the disease include rash and joint pain. The disease is usually mild, and rarely requires hospital treatment.

That is, unless you’re a pregnant woman. After the outbreak in Brazil, authorities have reported numerous cases where the virus has caused severe malformalities in babies whose mothers were infected while pregnant, including microcephaly, which is a condition where the baby is born with an abnormally small head and severe brain damage. As a result several countries in the region, including Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia and Honduras, have urged women not to get pregnant and advised foreign pregnant women against traveling to the region until further notice. El Salvador’s Deputy Health Minister has taken the most extreme stance so far – urging women in El Salvador to postpone pregnancy until 2018.

Advising pregnant women to not travel to these countries while the outbreak is happening makes perfect sense. This is something that individuals can control – we can choose to change, postpone or cancel our travel plans to countries where the Zika virus is present, to protect our own health and that of our unborn children. But, advising women living in these countries to delay pregnancy is a whole other matter – because for most of them, decisions related to family planning and their reproductive health are not in their control. That is why such advice and recommendations are likely to have little if any real impact, unless they are also accompanied by changes in the availability and affordability of sexual and reproductive health services and contraceptives – as well as a drastic change in attitudes towards contraception use and family planning. The discussion can also not happen in a void, but must be grounded in a broader debate about the complexities and challenges related to subpar availability of family planning services and contraceptives to both women and men in Latin America.

Not only do women in Latin America lack access to sexual and reproductive health and family planning services and often have no access to contraceptives, many of them also lack the necessary knowledge to be able to control if and when they get pregnant. Latin America and Caribbean has an estimated 1. 2 million unintended pregnancies just among adolescents every year. Nearly half of sexually active young women in the region have an unmet need for contraception – making it near impossible for them to control their reproductive choices and reliably avoid an unwanted pregnancy. As the region is predominately Roman Catholic, the church’s condemnation of contraceptives seems to be quite a contradiction to the recommendation for women to delay pregnancy. So far, the statements made by government officials have also categorically ignored the role and responsibility of men in all of this – after all, it usually takes two people for a woman to get pregnant. As long as women cannot conceive a baby alone, they should not be expected to bear the responsibility of avoiding unwanted pregnancies alone either. What’s making the situation even worse is the fact that in most of these countries, abortion is either fully illegal or very hard to obtain – leading women’s rights groups to call for changes to existing abortion laws and bans, particularly in the extreme case of El Salvador where abortion is banned even in a case of fetal deformation.

Releasing reliable and factual information about the Zika virus is absolutely crucial for pregnant women to be able to take necessary precautions to minimize their risk of getting infected, but providing that information is only a tiny part of the efforts that need to be undertaken to protect women and their babies from the disease. Without the tools – sexual education, family planning services and contraceptives – telling women to “delay pregnancy”, is, in all honesty, total hypocrisy. It’s like telling a person standing in the rain to “not get wet”, and not give them an umbrella – despite the fact that you’re holding the umbrella in your hand. We know what women need to control their reproductive choices. We know what women need to decide if, when and with whom to get pregnant. But as long as these things are not made available unplanned and unwanted pregnancies will continue to happen, which should not only be considered a problem because of the Zika virus but in general. Having control over our bodies is not a matter of necessity because of the outbreak – it’s a basic human right that all women should have access to, at all times. The Zika virus is merely reminding us of the multiple devastating things that can happen when women are stripped of their basic right to control their bodies and reproductive choices.

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