Jill W. Sheffield

(WOMENSENEWS)–Discovering that one of her pregnant patients was anemic, a midwife in Kenya advised the woman to eat better, assuming that because she wore beautiful gold bracelets, she had the means to buy healthy food. But the woman demurred, saying she did not have the money. Even her jewelry was part of her dowry, belonging to her husband and not to be sold.

The woman died of a postpartum hemorrhage. After her death, her husband slaughtered 10 cows to feed mourners at her funeral. “Just one cow during her pregnancy would have saved her life,” said Jill W. Sheffield, president of Family Care International.

Sheffield recounted the story at a Manhattan news conference last week launching a new advocacy campaign, “Saving Women’s Lives,” to raise awareness of the global problem of maternal mortality. Also backing the campaign are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United Nations Population Fund.

“Every minute, somewhere on the globe, some woman dies from complications related to pregnancy. In this country, it is two a day,” Sheffield said. “We need the will to change that.”

One focus of the campaign is to draw attention to the role that violence against women plays in the number of women dying while pregnant and giving birth. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, said 514,000 women worldwide die each year during pregnancy or childbirth.

Violence Against Women Called ‘as Destructive as Slavery’

“We have to stop gender-based violence against women and reduce maternal mortality,” she said. “Violence against women is just as destructive and morally wrong as, say, slavery was.” Among the factors contributing to the number of deaths, she said, were the growing incidence of HIV infection among African girls and women, attacks on women in war situations and an increase in the sex trade.

Sheffield offered several examples of how violence and abuse against women could lead to complications during pregnancy. Childhood rape or incest can cause infertility, sexual disease or unwanted pregnancies, she said. In countries such as India, young girls may be given less food than boys, leading to malnourishment and anemia, both of which can affect a pregnant woman’s health, Sheffield said.

During a woman’s reproductive years, 15 to 44, Sheffield said that domestic violence, unsafe abortions and the transmission of the HIV virus also could lead to problems during childbirth and pregnancy. She also pointed to more “insidious” societal pressures. “A woman, fearful of assault, might not ask her partner to use condoms,” she said, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

Maternal mortality is not limited to developing countries. In the United States, the rate from 1982 to 1996 was about 7.5 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, said Lynne Wilcox, director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the “Saving Women’s Lives” campaign, an average of one in 48 women dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries.

Wilcox, also a speaker at the news conference, said that when the U.S. maternal death rate was broken down by race, it showed that African American women were four times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women. She said Centers for Disease Control statistics also showed that the maternal mortality rate among Hispanic women who immigrated to the United States was much higher than that of Hispanic women born in the United States.

Pregnant Women in the United States Not Immune to Violence

Referring to physical abuse during pregnancies, Wilcox cited a 1998 report by the centers that said 4 percent to 8 percent of pregnant women in the United States reported being victims of violence around the time of their pregnancy. The report, “Special Focus: Safe Motherhood,” further stated, “On the basis of these percentages, in 1995, between 152,000 and 324,000 of the 3.9 million U.S. women who gave birth to live infants experienced violence during their pregnancies.”

While the report said little is known about the specific effects of violence on women’s reproductive health, it did say that abused women were more likely to delay prenatal care and have poor nutrition.

The “Save Women’s Lives” campaign promotes improved health care for women including early prenatal care, better education for women and efforts to reduce violence against women. Referring to the hundreds of thousands of women who die each year during pregnancy and childbirth, Sheffield said, “It’s time that this changes.”

Vera Haller is a free-lance journalist in New York.

For more information, visit:

Family Care International:

Centers for Disease Control:

United Nations Population Fund: