Worldwide, we are losing ground on maternal health outcomes. 

Maternal deaths are rising in many parts of the world, and we are not on track to meet SDG 3.1: Reduce the global maternal mortality ratio (MMR) to less than 70 per 100 000 live births by 2030. In February 2023, the WHO released a report indicating that nearly 800 women died every day in 2020 – about one woman every two minutes. 

More importantly, maternal deaths are not distributed equally. On a global scale, most maternal mortality is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa (69%), particularly West Africa. Pregnancy-related causes are still the leading cause of death among African women aged 15-29. In the US, black women are 2.6 times more likely to die due to childbirth than white women. 

This significant equity challenge is being overlooked; the deaths of mothers deserve more attention and more resources. Within Mali, even though pregnancy is deadlier than armed conflict, the world pays far more attention to military action than the deaths of pregnant women.

At the same time, nearly every maternal death could be prevented. Though there is no standardized global data, studies from sub-Saharan Africa routinely show that over 90% of the causes of maternal deaths could be avoided with access to basic, quality maternal healthcare. In the US, more than 80% of maternal deaths could be avoided.

This contradiction is important and revealing – maternal mortality is mostly preventable, but we are still failing to prevent it. African women, and black women in the US, are dying at significantly higher rates. We must confront this truth, and its origins. We know what interventions work to improve maternal health outcomes. Our focus must stay on why all women and all communities don’t have access to them, and fix it.

Our current systems, strategies, institutions, and financing are not reaching the women most in need, because the women most in need are not represented in our current systems, strategies, institutions, and financing. In our current approaches, marginalized women and communities are usually rendered as passive recipients of services, not as actors with agency who are essential participants in the development of remedies to these deep and historic inequities.

To fix this problem, as Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet noted, it is not just about what we do. It is about how we do it. We will not fix it by continuing to use the same approaches that have created and are maintaining these gaps in maternal health equity. It won’t be solved from the top-down, which is still how most of the world’s global public health systems work. What’s required is not developing a new technology or innovation.

If we are going to stop and reverse the increasing trend in maternal mortality, the women and the communities most affected must be at the heart of solutions.

If we do not change our approach, the result would be disastrous. By one estimate, if the reduction of maternal deaths continues at its current rate, SDG 3.1 would not be met in the African Region until 2100, after 125 million mothers died from a cause related to childbirth.

So what does it mean to change the how of our sector? What would it mean to dismantle entrenched systems designed to retain power and decision-making in certain hands? How do we prioritize and center the voices, experiences, and knowledge of those whose needs are not being met?

Instead of continuing to operate through our existing institutions and structures, and building interventions around their capacity to deliver or distribute solutions to a population, it means turning our focus to the mother who needs access to those solutions and starting to address the problem from her perspective.

 It requires a complete shift towards a more fundamental question of who is invited to participate in the solving – who is invited to participate in the how.  It means being willing to give up control and to pursue solutions that put power and resources into local hands.

We are trying to put this shift into practice every day. Whether it is adapting traditional quality improvement processes so they can be led by local teams of women and stakeholders, or redefining local health financing to ensure that women have the ability to build and manage their own health-financing resources, we strive to use a women-centered approach in every strategy. We convene and support women, community members, and providers in the community health system to work together to identify and solve obstacles to quality maternal healthcare in their communities.

Ending preventable maternal mortality is a problem that can be solved, but only if we’re willing to change how we try to solve it.