Martha Murdock is FCI’s vice president for regional programs.
Last week in Nairobi, a range of partners — from the Kenyan government, UN agencies, donor countries, and many NGOs and research organizations from the national and county levels — came together for a presentation of new research that has the potential to increase the momentum of efforts to save the lives of nearly 300,000 women who die each year (5,500 of them in Kenya) from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
Each of these avoidable, premature deaths is a tragedy in its own right, and a terrible injustice. Each of these women — some of them barely more than girls — has a right to life and health, and to a standard of health care that protects her from preventable illness, injury, and death.
But we who work to improve maternal health have argued for years that each of these deaths also brings countless additional layers of loss, pain, and destruction. The tragic, sudden death of a woman in the prime of life — in many cases already a mother and often the most economically productive member of the family — begins a cascade of loss and pain that upends the lives of those around her: her newborn baby (if it survives) and her older children, husband, parents, and other members of her family and community.
Up until now, however, we haven’t had the hard data to support our case, to help us persuade governments, donors, and policy makers that investments in maternal health are also investments in children, in stable families, in education and community development, and ultimately in stronger national economies. Now, thanks to a study conducted in Kenya by FCI, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), and the KEMRI-CDC Research and Public Health Collaboration, we know that the data behind that argument is very powerful indeed.
Based on interviews and focus group discussions with every family, across a poor rural area in Siaya County in western Kenya, that had lost a family member to maternal death over a two-year period, we found that:
- When a mother dies in or around childbirth, her newborn baby is unlikely to survive.
- Of 59 maternal deaths in the study, only 15 babies survived their first two months of life.
- A mother’s death harms the educational and life opportunities of her surviving children.
- Many children had to leave school because the loss of a mother’s income meant that they couldn’t pay tuition fees, needed to work for a living, or had to take up essential household chores.
- The cost of emergency care (even when unsuccessful), combined with high funeral costs, puts families under a crushing economic burden.
- Families spent more on funerals than their total annual expenditure on food, housing, and other household costs, after having already spent 1/3 of their annual consumption expenditure on medical costs.
- Loss of income and high, unexpected costs send many families into a spiral of debt, poverty, and instability.
- Many families, under desperate financial pressure, had to sell household property, borrow from moneylenders, or move children out of the family home.
When this moving and compelling report was launched in Nairobi last Friday, I was proud to stand at the dais and introduce eminent leaders of efforts to improve women’s and children’s health in Kenya, including the U.K. High Commissioner for Kenya, Dr. Christian Turner (representing the U.K. Government, which funded this important research together with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health). Dr. Turner, in turn, introduced Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Hon. James Macharia. With us in the room were important policy makers from the Ministry of Health, national parliamentarians, and high-level representatives from UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA, USAID, and a range of other agencies and organizations.
We came together that morning, I said, “because we are all resolved, together with so many colleagues and partners here in Kenya and around the world, to work together to finally put an end to a tragic toll of maternal and newborn death that goes back to the beginnings of human history.” We have long known that far too many women were dying. What we lacked, until now, was hard data to help us fully understand the financial and social impact of a mother’s death — the costs to the health and well-being of thousands of surviving children, families, and communities. We and our partners undertook this study because we saw that filling this critical knowledge gap will offer advocates and policy makers a powerful tool for bringing further attention and investment to maternal health.
The messages that emerge from this research were expressed clearly and succinctly by Hon. James Macharia as he presided over the official launch of the report:
A mother’s death ignites a chain of disruption, economic loss, and emotional pain that often leads to the death of her baby, diminished educational and life opportunities for her surviving children, and a deepening cycle of poverty for her family.
The cost of a maternal death is, quite literally, a price too high to bear.
(An excellent in-depth news report on the study and its launch, by a leading Kenyan television network, can be viewed here: