By Vivienne Walt ~ FREETOWN 

In a hospital ward in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, Fatmata Conteh, 26, lay on a bed, having just given birth to her second child. She had started bleeding from a tear in her cervix, the blood forming a pool on the floor below. Two doctors ran in and stitched her up, relatives found blood supplies, and nurses struggled to connect a generator to the oxygen tank. One nurse jammed an intravenous needle into Conteh’s arm, while another hooked a bag of blood to a rusted stand, and a third slapped an oxygen mask over her face. In the corner of the room, a tiny baby–3 hours old–lay on a bed, wailing, swaddled in bright-colored African fabric. “Listen! You must feel happy to hear your baby cry,” said a nurse, pleading with Conteh to find strength. Three visiting members of a neighborhood church began chanting over Conteh: “Jesus, put blood into this woman! Thank you, Lord!” But as their chants grew louder, the nurses stepped back from the bed. Conteh was dead.

Some version of that scene is repeated around the world about once a minute. Death in childbirth is not just something you find in a Victorian novel. Every year, about 536,000 women die giving birth. In some poor nations, dying in childbirth is so common that almost everyone has known a victim. Take Sierra Leone, a West African nation with just 6.3 million people: women there have a 1 in 8 chance of dying in childbirth during their lifetime. The same miserable odds apply in Afghanistan. In the U.S., by contrast, the lifetime chance that a woman will die in childbirth is about 1 in 4,800; in Britain, 1 in 8,200; and in Sweden, 1 in 17,400. Deaths are heavily weighted to the poorest and most isolated in each country, which means that many politicians remain largely ignorant of the scale of the tragedy. “Often the people in the cities do not know what is happening in their own rural areas,” says Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and patron of the White Ribbon Alliance, a global advocacy organization that works with governments to lower maternal mortality rates. Brown–who lost a baby 10 days after giving birth in 2001–says that when she tells heads of state and their spouses how many women die in childbirth, “they are
aghast.”

The Gains Not Made

They have reason to be. For here is the truly ghastly reality of maternal mortality: in 20 years–two decades that have seen spectacular medical breakthroughs–the ratio of maternal deaths to babies born has barely budged in poor countries. To be sure, maternal health has seen advances, with new drugs to treat deadly postpartum bleeding and pregnancy-related anemia. But in many places, such gains are dwarfed by a multitude of problems: scattershot care, low pay for health workers and a scarcity of midwives and doctors. In Mozambique, where women have a 1 in 45 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth, there are just 3 doctors per 100,000 people; in all of Sierra Leone, there are 64 government doctors, only five of whom are gynecologists. Millions of families have never seen a doctor or nurse and give birth at home with traditional birthing helpers, while those who make it to a clinic–some
being carried on bicycles or in hammocks–often find patchy electricity, dirty water and few drugs or nurses. Explaining the task of reducing maternal deaths, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Health, Saccoh Alex Kabia, who returned home last year after decades of working as a surgeon in Atlanta, says, “The whole health sector is in a shambles.”

Many hope that maternal death rates in poor nations will naturally fall over time, as they did in much of the world in the 20th century. They well might. But international officials say governments often lack the political will–as well as the money–to tackle the issue, perhaps because there are too few women politicians to push it. Monir Islam, director of the maternal-health program of the World Health Organization in Geneva, calls governments’ low level of investment in reducing deaths in childbirth a “sinful neglect.”

In an attempt to jolt officials into action, governments at the U.N. General Assembly in 2000 chose to make a drastic reduction in maternal mortality one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGS)–a series of targets in a program that channels aid to key issues, including education and clean water–to be met by 2015. The MDGS hold people “to a golden standard for progress,” says Jamie Drummond, executive director of the antipoverty organization DATA. When world leaders gather in New York City this month to take stock of the MDGS, their speeches are likely to tout the many achievements since 2000: millions more African children now attend school and sleep under mosquito nets; thousands of new water wells have been dug. Yet though maternal health care underpins many other development goals (healthy mothers are more likely to ensure that their children are well fed and educated), the total number of women dying in childbirth has remained virtually unchanged in eight years. Why? Health officials are clear in their answers. Aside from lack of money and political will, they also face entrenched traditions and fatalistic attitudes to maternal mortality, especially in very poor communities. “People think that dying in childbirth is not preventable,” says Nadira Hayat, Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Health. “They say it is up to God.”

So it seemed before dawn one Sunday in August in Kora Olia, a remote village in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan, where maternal mortality is about four times the country’s already high rate. Nine months pregnant, Harakatmo, 19, began bleeding heavily. Her husband and mother-in-law were concerned, but the local doctor was far away, and expensive, so they waited. When Harakatmo was still bleeding the next morning, they sent a horseman to fetch a village health worker, but Harakatmo’s bleeding continued. Panicked, her husband strapped her to a makeshift stretcher and carried her down the steep track from their home until he found a police truck to take them to a clinic several miles away. The doctor there urged the family to rush Harakatmo to Badakhshan’s only hospital, in Faizabad, the provincial capital. Harakatmo’s husband hired a ramshackle minivan for the journey–a five-hour ride along rutted dirt roads. On the way, they stopped while Harakatmo’s mother-in-law delivered the baby. It was already dead; the tiny corpse was wrapped in a cloth and placed next to Harakatmo. Lying in the hospital that evening, she said she considered herself lucky. “When I left my house this morning, I thought I would die.”

More will die if health-care systems are not reformed. In the first half of this year, 889 babies were delivered in Freetown’s crumbling Princess Christian Maternity Hospital. During that period, 70 women died giving birth, and about eight more women have died since–an astonishing death rate of about 9%. Yet far from being overstretched, the hospital most days feels desultory, with nurses lingering in near empty wards because people cannot afford to pay for care. Emergency maternity care is supposed to be free in Sierra Leone, but in reality, patients are asked to pay for every item, including cotton swabs, gauze and syringes–this in a country where the average income is about $200 a year. If transfusions are needed, relatives have to donate blood to replace what is used.

One morning I watched a fierce argument between nurses and the relatives of a woman whose unborn baby was already dead inside her. As she sat on a bed awaiting an emergency C-section, her relatives pleaded that they could not afford 400,000 leones (about $135) for the operation. Finally the woman’s aunt handed some 250,000 leones (about $85) to a nurse, who counted the banknotes before jamming them into her pocket, explaining to me that the money was “for drugs and to pay the doctor.” Since nurses and doctors earn about $150 a month, “the staff is struggling to survive,” says Peter Sikana, technical adviser for the U.N. Population Fund in Sierra Leone.

The scribbled notes from nurses in patient records, many of them in school exercise books paid for by relatives, describe their battles to keep women alive. In one such note, a nurse describes a woman, 18, who arrived at the hospital in late July suffering convulsions days after a traditional birth attendant delivered her baby at home. Four days later, the nurse wrote, “All due nursing care rendered but in vain. May her soul rest in peace.” Six weeks later, I find the woman’s father sitting outside the tiny family home atop an escarpment that overlooks Freetown. Holding the newborn baby, he says his daughter gave birth at home because “the terrain is too rough to reach the hospital.” By the time he carried her, half conscious, down the slope to the hospital, she was too sick to be saved. Even for women who give birth in a hospital, survival is no sure thing. Another woman, 20, was admitted in late July in early labor and began having seizures hours after giving birth. Through the night the nurses scrawled frantic notes, including this one at 1:30 a.m.: “Dr. was tried … via mobile [phone] to no avail.” The woman died two hours later. I find her husband grinding peanuts in a Freetown
market. “She delivered a healthy baby,” he says, showing me a photograph of his wife, a tall woman with a confident, beaming smile.

Hope, for Some

Though many die in hospitals, researchers say the riskiest births are those without any nurse, midwife or doctor in attendance–about 35% of all the world’s births. In addition to age-old problems like unclean instruments and poor-quality water–in Sierra Leone, I visited a traditional birth attendant who said she had delivered hundreds of babies in a windowless room in a slum of cramped shanties, with no indoor plumbing–there are new hazards. Afghanistan, for example, has seen growing sales of over-the-counter oxytocin, an injectable hormone that is used to stanch postpartum bleeding and speed labor but that can kill if administered incorrectly. Shamisa, a midwife, says that recently a heavily pregnant woman was brought to her rural Badakhshan clinic in a coma after being given a range of drugs by a pharmacist; both she and the baby died.

After millions of deaths and years of muddled government policies, a groundswell of distress at maternal mortality rates is at last stirring action. At the July G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Hokkaido, Japan, leaders for the first time discussed maternal deaths as a crucial obstacle to development. And there has been progress. Some poor countries have shown rapid results from investments in maternal health: in Honduras, for example, maternal mortality rates dropped about 50% from 1990 to ’97 after officials opened scores of rural clinics and trained thousands of midwives. Nepal and Sri Lanka have trained midwives in emergency obstetrics. In the Indian states of Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, pregnant women now get 1,400 rupees ($32) to spend on whatever maternity services they choose–even a taxi ride to a clinic to give birth. Afghanistan has built 1,465 clinics and trained about 19,000 community health workers since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. The incidence of this worldwide tragedy can be reduced.

Even in Sierra Leone there are glimmers of hope. Aid organizations recently began training traditional birth attendants; several towns now demand that they deliver babies in clinics, where nurses can monitor their work. An hour east of Freetown, I visited a village where local elders had just passed a law requiring all women to give birth at a clinic or face fines of about $8–more than the clinic fee. And the World Bank, UNICEF and the British government’s Department for International Development have agreed to jointly invest $262 million over the next three years to overhaul Sierra Leone’s shambolic health system. “We will lose two or three more generations,” says Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s representative in Freetown. “But the core message is one of hope.”

For some, that hope has come too late. A week after Conteh’s death, her relatives gathered to name her baby girl after the dead mother. Weeping, Conteh’s parents and her boyfriend hugged and kissed the infant, a bittersweet reminder of their loss. They are not alone. In the time it has taken to read this story, about 20 more women have died in childbirth.


Read this story on TIME Magazine.