Bridging Ideologies: Maternal Health as a Human Rights Dilemma

By Underwood, Alice | Harvard International Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Bridging Ideologies: Maternal Health as a Human Rights Dilemma


Underwood, Alice, Harvard International Review


The year 2010 leaves the world with just five years before the targeted achievement of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Though time will tell if ongoing efforts prove sufficient, the goals of fighting disease, eradicating poverty and hunger, and pushing for environmental sustainability, at least, seem to be on track for success. Reducing gender-skewed death rates is another story. According to 2010's Millennium Development Goals Report, of the eight goals under discussion, the fifth--that of decreasing the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters and achieving universal access to reproductive health--appears furthest from being accomplished.

The steadily high rates of both maternal and child mortality are thoroughly preventable. Yet the struggle for maternal and reproductive health has been impeded by ideologically driven controversy and persisting gender inequality. Barriers in funding, due to the controversial attitude toward family planning on the global stage, continue to perpetuate a problem that could be solved with sufficient provision of medical care and supplies to women. They represent not simply a point of ideological difference but also a world health crisis and a human rights issue of enormous proportions. Worldwide prevalence of unlawful and unsafe abortions causes huge numbers of maternal deaths. Low use of modern contraceptive methods leads to further unintended pregnancies and health complications for both women and children, often resulting in families too large to support. Until the world directly confronts these problems, both women and children will continue to die. If world leaders are serious about reaching the Millennium Development Goals targeting maternal and child mortality by the 2015 deadline, it is time to set ideology aside and begin focusing on tangible efforts to increase access to medical attention and reproductive rights worldwide.

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Maternal Health, Paternal Ideologies

In his 1999 book Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen denounces the phenomenon by which women in many countries are reduced to "progeny-generating machines." This reduction, he argues, persists because of social conventions that subordinate women and value frequent childbirth.

A considerable obstacle for advocates of reproductive rights, and women's rights in general, is the continued marginalization of women throughout the world. Manifestations of gender inequality appear in myriad forms, including income inequities, limited economic opportunities, domestic violence, and the stigmatization of women's participation in major decision-making, whether financial, political, or even personal. In much of the world, women's voices are stifled by the cultural dominance of men, and as a result, women are often reduced socially and institutionally to their reproductive ability. In control, the men determine the value of women's personhood by their frequency of childbearing, and treat them accordingly.

According to Alexandra Garita, International Policy Program Officer at the International Coalition for Women's Health, the subordination of women often precludes them from obtaining the health care they need. For example, in many parts of Latin America, women have to hide contraceptives under the mattress, fearing a beating if the men find out. Stigma and discrimination around women's sexuality in many communities augment the paradoxical link between silence around sexual behavior and an expectation of many children.

For these reasons, women are often unable to ask for contraception or other family planning services, or even, at times, for medical care during pregnancy. Furthermore, according to the 2010 UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report, net funding for family planning has dropped since 2000, and progress in expanding the use of contraceptives by women has slowed since the 1990s. As high rates of adolescent and unintended pregnancy abound among women with low levels of education or who live in impoverished or rural areas, as few as one in three women in some developing regions obtain the recommended level of care while pregnant. …

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