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No woman, no cry: a tale of surviving motherhood

Mamata Pokharel's picture

The scene was heart-wrenching. Janet, a young mother in rural Tanzania is having trouble giving birth, despite being way past her due date. She visits a nearby clinic where the nurse asks her if she has any food to eat, as she doesn't have enough strength to push the baby. “Without food, the baby will not come out,” says the nurse.

The scene is from model Christy Turlington’s new documentary, "No Woman No Cry", screened recently at the World Bank. The documentary takes us on an eye-opening journey through Tanzania, Guatemala, Bangladesh and the United States, putting human faces to maternal mortality statistics, and making a powerful case for doing more to tackle the problem.

Watch the trailer here:

As for Janet, her pregnancy got more complicated, and she had to be taken to a nearby hospital in a van arranged by Christy’s crew.  Janet gave birth to a healthy baby boy and returned home to hugs and smiles. Without help, Janet’s family would have been unable to provide the $30 for the van ride, and the story might not have had this happy ending.

In sub-Saharn Africa today, 1 in 22 women still die from complications during childbirth. Many of these deaths are preventable. Effective interventions are known and available. (See a factsheet of 10 things you should know about maternal mortality (pdf), and add your name to a petition supporting maternal health.)

But there is good news. As world leaders gather to renew their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a lot of progress has been made on the fifth MDG – reducing maternal mortality. Maternal mortality has fallen by 34% since 1990. That is dramatic.

At the documentary screening, prominent women leaders engaged in a lively discussion on the progress in—and constraints to—reducing maternal mortality, parts of which you can watch here: 

What emerged out of the discussion was this: maternal health is not just a health issue. It is an economic issue, a socio-cultural issue, an education issue, an infrastructure issue. Most of all, it is an income issue. Lack of ability to afford a van to drive to the nearest hospital can make a difference between life and death; lack of food to eat while pregnant is a real tragedy.

Asked about the one thing she would invest the marginal dollar in, Afghan Minister of Health Suraya Dalil said she would prioritize training doctors, nurses and midwives. 

World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said she would invest in the men. She recounted her experience seeing men cry when they could not help their wives who were in pain, and dying during childbirth.

The discussants also emphasized the importance of talking about the successes and results.That story of progress is, after all, what gives everyone the encouragement needed to keep pushing ahead.

Meanwhile, I would like to pose to you the question posed to the discussants. We all know reducing maternal mortality, like most other problems, requires a holistic approach. But if you had enough resources to focus on one intervention only, where would you invest?

Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
Highlight Photo:


Submitted by Nayantara Watsa on
It is good to see that there is such lively debate on the issue of maternal mortality in the forefront of public health discourse- an area that definitely needs a variety of interventions. In response to the discussion question you posed, I think of utmost importance is the issue of the availability of quality medical services pre- and post-birth. Better trained midwives and formal healthcare provides, as well as emergency care is a huge need. In addition, improving nutritional practices during and after pregnancy greatly increases the chances of having health newborn infants and reducing complications during birth (like in the case of Janet, needed more food to be able to deliver her child). A well-written report!