Why are 7 out of 10 maternal deaths still taking place in Africa?

A mother checks on her two babies as they lie on her bed at her house in Keur Assane Mbaye village, Thies region, Senegal May 26, 2022

A mother checks on her two babies as they lie on her bed at her house in Keur Assane Mbaye village, Thies region, Senegal May 26, 2022. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Our continent’s future is being born again - we are called upon to start a new chapter by investing in women and newborns, where our actions have the greatest impact

H.E. Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa is the President of the Republic of South Africa.

There are stories passed down from our mothers and grandmothers about life’s beginnings. Reverberating stories of joy and pride, but stories that are whispered, fraught with shame and sadness. We speak of babies miscarried and stillborn, of those born too soon and of mothers who passed away suddenly, leaving families inconsolable. However, many of these stories remain unheard, contributing to the neglect of maternal and child health.

We have made significant strides towards better health outcomes for women, newborns, children and adolescents. Only 20 years ago, most births in Africa happened at home, where we could not monitor adverse outcomes. Today, more than half of births occur at a health facility. Yet, this is still the lowest rate of any region in the world – far below the target of 90% needed to reach the Sustainable Development Goals for maternal and newborn survival.

So why do 7 out of 10 maternal deaths continue to take place in Africa? If we truly value mothers and babies, why are we slow in preventing mortality?

Where you live should not determine whether you survive or not. Who you are should not determine the value of your life. How much money you have should not determine the quality of health care you can access. Your skin colour should not determine your inherent worth and right to dignity.

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Today, a movement is sweeping through Africa. Our countries and communities are brimming with ambition and innovation, powered by the largest generation of young people the world has ever known.

To realise our ambitions of economic and social prosperity for all, we need to focus on where it all begins, with the survival and well-being of mothers and babies.

Today, around the world, there will be 12,000 deaths resulting from complications around birth, including women, newborns and stillborns. Half of these deaths are in Africa.

The burden of preterm births—the leading cause of newborn death—has hardly changed in 20 years. The numbers of stillbirths, too, remain unacceptably high with two million families a year suffering preventable losses, often in silence or stigma.

This cannot be tolerated. So, in our parliaments, in our communities and in our clinics, let us speak for change, and let us invest where it matters most.

First, we need to listen carefully to what women and families tell us about what matters most to them, including how crucial it is that care is there when it is needed most, provided with quality and respect.

We need to invest in the building blocks of our health system, including better data to improve planning, monitoring and evaluating the health system and a well-equipped workforce, especially with more midwives.

We must join the dots between women’s health and what underpins it, including promoting and protecting gender-related issues. Women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, is a fundamental right.

Together, we can avert 30 million maternal and newborn deaths and stillbirths worldwide by 2030, including more than 15 million in Africa alone.

We hear the cries of our mothers, grandmothers and men who have lost their wives, mothers and children. It is time to commit to change.

The International Maternal Newborn Health Conference will begin on May 8 in Cape Town, South Africa.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Wealth inequality
  • Race and inequality
  • Poverty
  • Economic inclusion

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