The number of maternal deaths has fallen globally from around half a million in 1980 to fewer than 350,000 in 2008. Around a quarter occur in India, which has the highest number of maternal deaths in the world. According to government data, 254 women die in India for every 100,000 live births (though various interagency estimates put the incidence higher at 300–600). This means that women in India are over 30 times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than those in developed countries.
In April, campaigners launched a scheme called “Play Your Part” aimed at raising awareness of the nearly 80% of maternal deaths in India which are believed to be avoidable. The campaign was designed to draw attention to the lack of health facilities and the lower social status of women, which gives them little say in family planning and leads women to suffer from high rates of malnutrition and anaemia. It is estimated that more than half of young women in India are anaemic.
The Indian government has for a long time promised to address this tragedy, pledging to reduce the incidence of maternal deaths to 109 per 100,000 births by 2015 under the UN Millennium Development Goal target. Now the government has launched a significant welfare programme for pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers. Each woman will be given 12,000 rupees (270 dollars) over a period of six months. This will be paid directly into a private bank account to ensure the money reaches the women. To be eligible for the scheme, each woman will have to sign up for regular health checks during pregnancy and attend for all the prescribed vaccinations.
A recent report from the World Health Organisation and other UN bodies found that India had begun to reduce the number of maternal deaths, but was still looking some way off meeting its UN Millennium Development Goal target. The Indian government will be hoping this new welfare measure will improve progress towards that goal.
Officials will also be hoping that the extra money will help address the problem of underweight infants; 30% of children in India are born underweight due to chronic poverty. More than 400 million Indians live below the UN’s poverty line of surviving on less than 1.25 dollars per day. The new welfare scheme should allow mothers to eat more healthily during their pregnancy, raising the birth weight of their babies.
Aid organisations have welcomed this new focus on mothers. With India’s growing economy (Gross Domestic Product has more than doubled since 1991), observers feel it is high time India directs some of its increasing wealth to long-neglected problems such as high maternal mortality and invests in the health of its future generations.