Mobilizing for Maternal Health: Delivering on a Global Promise to Moms Everywhere

"It's a good thing you're not having this baby in North Dakota!" my silver-tongued obstetrician declared jauntily.  "This baby" turned out to be a tiny spark of a girl, born 11 weeks early and weighing 1 1/2 pounds, considerably less than she should have in the 29th week of pregnancy.  "My little chickie," the neonatal intensive care nurse, who held my daughter long before I did, would croon. When Jan began work as a NICU nurse decades earlier, there were no needles or tubes small enough to fit the little birds who'd fallen so soon from the nest. I had landed in a lucky spot on the space-time continuum: in 2002, I lived a few miles from a Connecticut teaching hospital with a high-level, high-volume NICU. Apparently, in other parts of the 21st century United States, hospitals still did not always
With my daughter in the NICU 
have the appropriate equipment or the experienced staff to give pregnancies and babies like mine the best chances of a "positive outcome."

"It's a good thing we didn't have either of our babies in Guatemala!" I mused to my husband.  There was no hint of jauntiness to his reply, as he knew that I almost certainly would not have made it out of my first pregnancy alive. A little over a year prior to the premature emergency delivery of my son, we had lived in the central highlands of Guatemala. I was doing anthropological fieldwork on community health promoter training in rural Maya communities. I was particularly interested in women's involvement in health activism, including the work of traditional Maya midwives and healers.

Maya midwives inspired me with their deep cultural knowledge of pregnancy and birthing, their nurturing relationships with women and families, and their tireless work under extremely difficult circumstances. They also shared stories of fear, mostly of ethnic discrimination, violence, and poverty but sometimes of the challenges of helping mothers and infants through the risky endeavor of reproduction. I think of their warm, wise faces and know that I would have been one of their professional nightmares. Honestly, my high-risk obstetrics specialists probably felt the same way.
Maya midwife

In both of my pregnancies, I developed one of the most common and least understood of pregnancy complications known as pre-eclampsia. In addition to posing serious risks to the mother's health, pre-eclampsia can cause growth restriction and other problems in the developing infant, including the need for a premature delivery. Difficult to detect, it can develop -- often quite rapidly -- into the seizures and coma of eclampsia, one of the leading causes of maternal death. According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, the condition causes an estimated 13% of maternal deaths and up to 20% of preterm births worldwide. It remains one of the reasons why every year nearly 300,000 women across the globe die and many more are disabled from pregnancy and birth-related causes.

That statistic is an improvement. The United Nations focused global attention on maternal death in 2000 when it established the 5th Millennium Development Goal (MDG 5), calling on nations to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters between 1990 and 2015. Increased global activism and investments have contributed to a 47% decline in maternal deaths in this period, but progress has been slow and inequities persist. The vast majority of maternal deaths, which are largely preventable, occur in developing regions as a result of unequal access to healthcare and other resources.

At the end of this month in which we honor mothers, Women Deliver, a global advocacy group dedicating to improving the health of women and girls, will convene its third international conference. Thousands of representatives from government, NGOs, healthcare, academia, community groups, and other spheres will gather in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to brainstorm about how to continue to mobilize the international community to improve maternal health and the overall well-being of girls and women. As Women Deliver's President Jill Sheffield stated in a recent Huffington Post blog with Jennifer James that is part of the Global Mom Relay, "We have the solutions....We just need to scale them."

Musicians, writers, filmmakers, and other artists have joined this global movement to improve maternal health. For example, filmmaker Lisa Russell and singer Maya Azucena developed an innovative platform uniting artists and activists in their work to achieve MDG 5. Their interactive website,, includes content by singers, poets, photographers and artists that can be remixed to create videos that raise awareness about maternal health and women's rights. As Russell and Azucena state, "we believe in the power of imagery, sound and the spoken word to inspire cultural exchange, unite international communities, and to promote social progress worldwide."

Like the dedicated Maya midwives and health promoters I came to know, these creative artists and activists inspire me to join in their efforts to understand, prevent, and solve maternal health challenges.  The pain within my own journey of pregnancy and birthing has no doubt lefts its scars, but by virtue of my privileged location within our global geography, history, and economy I was gifted with a tremendously positive outcome for my own life and that of my children. While I sometimes may forget amidst the busyness of raising my now 10-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, my own aging face in the mirror and their vibrant, growing faces are my call to action: to increase the opportunities for health for all mothers, infants, fathers, and families, no matter whether they live in the inner cities of Connecticut or the highlands of Guatemala, in rural North Dakota or rural Nigeria, or in any other spot on our remarkable globe.

To learn more about the signs and consequences of pre-eclampsia, see the Preeclampsia Foundation.

The Women Deliver website has further information about the 2013 conference and other projects such as Catapult, a crowdfunding platform for advancing gender equality.

Information and resources related to MDG 5 are available at: United Nations Millennium Development Goal 5 and