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Story from the Front Lines: Why Do Women Die in Childbirth?

Photo of Grace Lusiola

Grace Lusiola is Director of EngenderHealth’s program in Tanzania.

My mother was 37 years old when she died. I lost her because she had pregnancy-related complications. She experienced difficulties during the seventh and eighth deliveries; she didn’t make it through the ninth.

So why did my mother die in childbirth? Mainly this tragedy occurred because she lived in the countryside and there were no trained health providers in her village. When she ran into trouble delivering at home, there was nobody available to offer emergency obstetric care or to transport her the 25 kilometers to the nearest health facility. I also believe what contributed to her death was the lack of access to modern family planning methods that would have enabled her to keep her family small—as she had wanted.

Sadly, almost 50 years after my mother’s passing, countless African women are still dying from the same causes. Many women would like to stop or space their pregnancies but don’t have contraception, and in many parts of the continent, high-quality maternal health care is out of reach. In Tanzania and in other countries where abortion is highly restricted, trained providers are scarce and expensive, so women wanting to terminate their pregnancies resort to traditional practitioners or self-induce. As Mariam’s story illustrates, unsafe abortion is a major cause of maternal death. Like my mother, many women throughout Africa do not live to celebrate their 40th birthday.

That’s at least partly because African governments spend such a small percentage of their national budgets on reproductive health, much lower than that spent on defense and tourism. And international funding for reproductive health is also too little. I wonder why the cries of women dying in the villages of Tanzania and all over the world still aren’t heard.

I have heard the cries of these women and have dedicated my career to helping them. My colleagues and I have helped transform hospitals and health centers to meet the health needs of these voiceless women.

The challenges are great. Long waits for services are still common. Most clinics in rural areas are still unable to provide comprehensive services for family planning, maternal health, and HIV and AIDS prevention and care. There is a serious shortage of health care professionals, and existing staff are overstretched and don’t have all of the skills necessary to perform their duties.

But we are making strides. We are bringing quality services closer to women and their families at the village level, reaching some of the poorest and most underserved women. For example, we have equipped several health clinics and have trained staff in even the most rural areas, preventing thousands of women from dying of abortion complications.

Each time my team and I expanded our services to a new site, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, because I knew we had contributed to saving more women from my mother’s fate. I am thrilled when I see the smile of a rural woman whose life has been transformed by family planning or a mother who was given medicine to prevent HIV transmission and delivered her baby safely, cradling an infant she knows is likely to survive.

We are helping to bring lifesaving services to countless women and their families. In so doing, I believe I am honoring my mother’s memory.