Reaching the Invisible Woman: The Right to Maternal Care

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We cannot afford to wait. We must direct our efforts to reaching unseen women like Edith with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including maternal care.If you were suffering from a medical emergency, how long would it take you to reach a hospital? Could you afford an ambulance to take you there?

For women like Edith, there isn’t an ambulance. And the journey to the nearest hospital could take more than 24 hours.

Last May, Edith arrived at a Pathfinder-supported clinic in Lake Victoria Basin, Uganda, the rural community in which she lives. Shortly after she gave birth to her ninth child, the nurse midwife realized there was a problem. She couldn’t deliver the placenta. Edith was bleeding profusely and needed advanced medical attention fast.

But in order to get there, Edith and her nurse, Stella, would need transport to the nearest hospital—across Lake Victoria.

Stella quickly arranged for someone to transport them 45 minutes to the boats they needed to cross the lake.  When they finally reached the dock, they didn’t have enough money to hire the boat. It cost over 100,000 shillings, and Edith’s husband had only half that. Stella contributed what she could.

Thankfully a few nearby fishermen pooled what little money they had to fund the journey and helped lift Edith’s body onto the boat.

Rough waves spilled over into the boat as Stella tried to keep Edith alive. After an hour, they finally reached the other side. “We had just enough money for the taxi to the hospital,” remembers Stella, shaking her head. “There was a lot of blood.”

Edith was lucky—she made it to the hospital in time. But there are many women who won’t.

Every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. And 99 percent of these maternal deaths occur in developing countries.

We cannot afford to wait. We must direct our efforts to reaching unseen women like Edith with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including maternal care. We must do more to reach the invisible women, those who live in the last mile, often beyond the scope of international projects and programs.

Every day, women around the world are excluded from the right to maternal health services by factors like geography, culture, education, physical or mental disabilities, and social stigma. There is a tremendous need to address these disparities, but often a lack of funding or political will to do so.

Respectful, quality maternal health care is a human right. And as global health practitioners, we know that ensuring this care is not an option, but an ethical imperative.

At Pathfinder International, we address these needs by going where the need is greatest.

We work in neglected geographic areas like West Africa to meet the needs of mothers who are frequently not just mothers, but also fairly young women. That means we must provide maternal care that takes into account their unique adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health needs.

We work with isolated indigenous groups in Peru, reaching mothers in rural La Libertad with culturally respectful approaches to childbirth and emergency obstetric care.

We also work to prevent maternal morbidities like fistula, malaria, and anemia that can handicap a woman’s ability to provide for herself and her family for lengthy periods of time.

For the world to move forward, we must empower women and girls, and that includes ensuring their right to contraception as well as maternal health. Without it, they lose out on major opportunities: staying in school, making steady income, and living a healthy, long life.

We have made marked progress on maternal health. That’s cause for celebration. But as we celebrate this incremental victory, we must remember that our work is not finished until the last woman can demand her right to maternal health.

Edith and her newborn baby were able to get the help they needed after reaching a local hospital. They are healthy and well. Before, Edith didn’t have access to contraception or maternal health care. Today, thanks to the Health of People and Environment in the Lake Victoria Basin projectsupported by individual donors, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and USAIDEdith is one of many women in her community with access to sexual and reproductive health.

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