Sally Field

(WOMENSENEWS)–The best countries to be a mother are Sweden, Denmark and Norway while women and their children fare worst in such countries as Niger and Ethiopia, according to a new study released ahead of Mother’s Day.

In its annual "Mothers’ Index," relief group Save the Children compared the well-being of mothers and their children in 117 countries, 43 of which were either experiencing conflict or had emerged from civil strife. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Finland were ranked in the top five countries, followed by Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and the United Kingdom. The United States, where Mother’s Day is celebrated today, ranked 11th on the Mother’s Index.

The organization’s study ranked Niger, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Guinea-Bissau at the bottom of the list, along with Angola, Chad, Mali, Yemen, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

In concert with the report’s release, several U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, introduced legislation last week that would provide funds to protect women and children refugees who are displaced because of war or victimized in its aftermath.

Education, Family Planning Key to Infant Survival

The index, based on data collected for the year 2002, compared the status of mothers in 19 industrialized nations and 98 developing countries using 10 factors relating to women’s and children’s health, education and political status.

"What we’re really trying to demonstrate is the huge difference between being a mother in industrialized countries and in the developing countries," said Mary Beth Powers, senior reproductive health adviser for Save the Children, based in Westport, Conn. "It’s really risky business to be a mother in many parts of the world."

Compared with a mother in the top 10 countries, a mother in the bottom 10 countries is 27 times more likely to see her child die in the first year of life and 600 times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth. In the bottom 100 countries, nearly 4 out of 7 children are not attending school, and only 1 in 4 adult women is literate. In the top 10 countries, virtually all children go to school and all women are literate. For example, in Sweden, 99 percent of women are literate while at the other end of the scale, only 8 percent of women in Niger are literate.

The study found that a mother’s level of education and her access to family planning services were the most important factors linked to infant survival and well-being. Women who are educated are more likely to postpone marriage and early childbirth, seek health care for themselves and their families and encourage all of the children, including girls, to go to school.

As contraceptive use rises, and mothers are able to space their births at healthy intervals, death among mothers and children declines. For example, in the United Kingdom, where 82 percent of women used modern birth control, only 1 in 5,100 mothers die in childbirth and only 6 out of 1,000 infants did not live to their first birthday. In Guinea, where 4 percent of women used birth control, 1 in 7 mothers died in childbirth and more than 1 in 10 infants died in their first year.

Conflict Protection Scorecard

Millions of women and children were caught in more than 40 conflicts around the world, the report said. The consequences of war include psychological distress, people fleeing their homes, children separated from parents, boys and girls forced into combat and increasing numbers of women and children dying due to violence and worsening humanitarian conditions. The report found that child soldiers were used in more than 70 percent of conflict zones studied. Trafficking of women and girls was reported in 85 percent of the conflict zones.

Biden and other senators introduced The Women and Children in Armed Conflict Protection Act of 2003 last week. The legislation would provide $45 million to help prevent and respond to violence and abuse against women and children in war-torn areas.

"Today, 90 percent of the casualties in any war are civilians and they are mostly women and children," said Biden at a press conference last week. The ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden added, "Women and children all over the world are suffering the ravages of war and natural disasters. They are being forced to leave their homes out of fear for their lives and the lives of their children, eventually making it to refugee camps where, rather than being protected, they are brutalized and sometimes raped. Best case scenario: They lack the basic necessities of food, water and medical supplies, and left to do what they have to do to survive."

At the same press conference, actress Sally Field said the new legislation would make protection of women and children in war situations a much higher priority. "The one wish of every mother–whether she is from Afghanistan or Alabama, Iraq or Indiana–is to provide the best for her children," Field said. "Yet tens of millions of mothers in conflict-ridden countries are struggling for daily survival, desperately seeking protection from violence and exploitation for their children."

"While world attention remains riveted on Iraq, there are more than three dozen forgotten armed conflicts around the world that have taken a devastating toll on millions of women and children who have little or no protection against the ravages of war," added Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children.

The report ranked the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Angola and Burundi as the five worst conflict zones for women and children, saying that some 10 million women and children are imperiled by war in these five countries alone.

Alexandra Poolos is assistant managing editor for Women’s eNews.