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Panel discussion- preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and human rights

Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights
at the  34th Human Rights Council

9 March 2017
from 3 to 6 p.m., Room XX
Palais des Nations

Chair, Excellencies,

As you are aware, on a number of occasions over a number of years ,the Human Rights Council has emphasized the intimate relationship between human rights and maternal mortality and morbidity.

The insights that this Council have enabled, shed needed light on the ways in which human rights violations drive preventable causes of maternal mortality, how human rights abuses are at the root of maternal morbidity and why human rights upheld can pave the path to prevention of needless deaths and injury for women, children and the newborn.


These fundamental truths are further affirmed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development.  And our panel discussion aims to generate concrete recommendations for concrete actions that States and other stakeholders may take in order to accelerate progress in reducing maternal mortality and morbidity while upholding guarantees of human rights.

In this context, there is much to celebrate.  The commitment, engagement and investments of member States the world over has enabled great strides in reduction of maternal mortality. Maternal mortality was halved in less than 25 years - between 1990 and 2015.  Mothers, wives, grand mothers, sisters, daughters and sons – millions of lives saved, the dignity of millions better protected and untold numbers of families and their communities uplifted.

The evidence is incontrovertible - maternal mortality and morbidity is preventable – it is avoidable and by steps to do so that are affordable.  The loss of life and wellbeing in pregnancy – and through the circumstances in which women and girls become pregnant - is not an inevitable fact of nature nor merely the lot of women – it is not a burden that women must bear for being women, a girl for simply being a girl that has started to menstruate.

We also know that patterns of remaining preventable maternal mortality are entirely predictable.

Afterall, who is it that is dying? It is the very young. Those living in poverty. It is women and girls from minority communities. Indigenous women. The very same women and girls that are subjected daily to discrimination, living daily with the pernicious consequences of marginalization, subjected daily to the indignity of their rights denied, their rights violated, their rights derailed.

Preventable and predictable and yet pervasive?  More than 800 women and girls die every day of pregnancy and childbirth.  33 more dead from preventable causes for every hour that we meet here, every hour of every day.  Waste in an era of scarcity.  Tragedy in an era when we need no more.  Loss of those from whom we all have so much to gain.

Discrimination against women and girls dogs their life-course and, when combined with gender stereotypes and underpinned by gender based violence, preventable maternal mortality and morbidity is a sure and certain outcome.

Two million girls under the age of 15 are estimated to give birth every year but we are not sure because the data is not collected.  Millions of newborns’ health is imperilled by unplanned and too frequent pregnancies but we don’t know for sure because civil registration at birth is not comprehensive.  Hundreds of thousands of girls lose their lives to unsafe abortion but we cannot be confident we know the extent because cause-of-death registration is not at scale. The majority of teenage pregnancies occur with in marriage and yet we can’t be sure we understand the scale of child marriage without better rates of marriage registration. 

And yet, while a girl may be deemed somehow old enough to be married that same girl is considered too young for comprehensive sexuality education, too young for contraceptive choices, too young to choose to say no to the sexual abuses that forced marriage imposes.

One in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence in their life time – and the data suggest that a majority are subjected to that violence before they reach the age of 16.

Although of course the age-old responsibility of pregnancy, labour and birth lies uniquely with women, hundreds of thousands are obliged to secure third party authorization for decisions about their own health.

The consistent caustic thread cutting across these violations is disrespect for dignity and autonomy of women and girls and purposeful neglect of the value of their lives.  Wrong in principle, it is wrong in

How can childhood be thought to be the right place for motherhood?  How can it be that for millions of women and children, the family that should be safe haven becomes tantamount to a torture chamber?  How can it be that many authorities would rather outlaw love than outlaw hate that drives sexual violence in marriage?

To eliminate preventable maternal mortality and morbidity, greater honesty, greater courage, and greater political will are essential.   Myths must be dismantled.  Misogyny must be denounced.  Sexual intimacy must be enabled to be consensual, informed and safe.  In this the path of human rights must travelled unimpeded from the courtroom, to the boardroom, to the school room and yes, even to the bedroom, for it is in this private domain that still women and children are subjected to the gravest threats rather than to the deepest respect.  The private domain and the sanctity of the family can never be purchased on the backs of a woman or the body of a child or at the price of a girl’s future.

Mr President, it is encouraging that States have renewed and upgraded their commitments under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to eliminate the elimination of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is transformative, rights-based and universal. A global roadmap for what this means for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health has been laid out in the UN Secretary-General’s Global Strategy for 2016-2030. The Global Strategy is a critical opportunity to pursue an integrated health and human rights agenda, including in the elimination of preventable maternal mortality and morbidity. 

Our office has is active in helping develop and disseminate the technical guidance and tools to support member States in their progress and in 2016 we issued a guide for health workers on a human rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health and maternal and child health.

In addition, last year, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the WHO Director General established a landmark High Level Working Group on the health and human rights of women, children and adolescents, led by Co-Chairs, Ms Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland, Ms Hina Jirani, member of the Elders from Pakistan and supported by Dr Denis Mukwege. The Working Group will advise the leadership of our two agencies on advances for a human rights-based approach to protecting and promoting the health of women, children and adolescents. We will hear the Working Group’s advice in the context of the Wordl Health Assembly and the June session of the Human Rights Council.


We know what we need to know.  We have good practices to put in place.  What works, works. For lack of further, more inclusive, progress, there can be no further excuse.   Systematic, consistent and comprehensive implementation of a human rights based approach accompanied by needed political will can transform the prospects for all women everywhere.
I look forward to hear from this panel on concrete recommendations on how to spur our political will to accelerate the progress to eliminate preventable maternal mortality and morbidity while upholding human rights.

Thank you.