United Nations officials are warning that the international development gains that have been made over the past two decades “cannot be sustained” if countries continue to ignore women’s rights and health. But according to a new report from the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA), gains in women’s progress have been extremely unequal across the globe, and economically disadvantaged women still face huge barriers to their health and wellbeing.
The UNFPA report — a sweeping review of data from 176 countries — finds that many indicators of sexual health have improved over the past 20 years, as fewer teenage girls are experiencing unintended pregnancies and fewer women are dying in childbirth. But these gains aren’t coming to every corner of the globe. In the nation’s poorest countries, pregnancy and childbirth are still the leading cause of death among women between the ages of 15 and 19. There are still 222 million women without access to contraception and family planning, and 800 women die in childbirth every single day.
“Too many people, particularly the poor, still live without access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning,” UNFPA’s executive director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, explained at a launch event for the report. “And laws designed to protect the rights of women and girls, where they exist, are often not enforced.”
Overall, maternal deaths have declined by 47 percent since 1994. But women in poor nations are still dying from preventable medical complications like bleeding, infections, and obstructed labor. And without access to modern contraception or legal abortion services, an estimated 47,000 women around the globe are still dying from unsafe abortions.
Although the United States isn’t one of the impoverished nations that Osotimehin is referring to, this country also continues to struggle with maternal health care outcomes. The number of American women dying in childbirth has doubled over the past 25 years, despite the fact that they receive some of the most expensive care in the world. The U.S. also has the highest rate of first-day infant mortality of any country in the developed world. That’s why, this past fall, a pharmaceutical company announced its decision to bring a maternity health program intended for poor nations here to the United States.