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Maternal mortality, human rights and accountability

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that maternal mortality is often a result of violations of key human rights principles including accountability, equality, non-discrimination and meaningful participation.

Natia, 25, has just given birth to her second child at the regional hospital in Kutaisi, Georgia © UNFPA Photo“When authorities do not meet their responsibilities to protect, promote and fulfil women’s rights, the consequences of this neglect are shamefully dire and, indeed, they may be fatal.

“Yet if those responsible for such violations are not held accountable, there is practically no incentive to put in place remedial measures,” Pillay told a roundtable discussion on ‘Maternal mortality, human rights and accountability’ in Geneva, 2 September, organized by civil society advocating for human rights.

According to the latest UN official figures, more than 500,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related causes. This means one death every minute. Meanwhile approximately 10 million women annually suffer pregnancy-related injuries and disabilities.

A recent study by the United Nations Human Rights office (OHCHR) states unequivocally that maternal mortality and morbidity is a matter of human rights, and that a human rights-based approach is essential to addressing this serious global problem.

Pillay said that 108 countries had invited her to present the study to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Review Summit in New York, 20-22 September. The study, which focuses on Goal 5 maternal health and human rights, is now on the list of documents for the Summit.

“Furthermore, I am seizing every opportunity to emphasize the intrinsic link between human rights and the Millennium Development Goals, using maternal mortality and morbidity as a powerful illustration,” she said.

OHCHR emphasizes that pursuing development hand-in-hand with human rights gives governments a better chance of reaching the MDGs.

“Clearly, maternal mortality and morbidity cannot be seen in isolation. In addition to the tragic loss of life, maternal mortality triggers and aggravates cycles of poverty that cause generations of suffering and despair. When mothers die, children and, especially girls, are at greater risk of dropping out of school, becoming malnourished, and simply not surviving.

“A key result of the human rights-based approach is that ultimately women will be able to exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes, including those affecting their sexual and reproductive health, family planning, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and in addressing unsafe abortion,” said Pillay.

Read the full speech of the High Commissioner

3 September 2010