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Maternal health

38% of health facilities in the developing world do not have clean water.
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Can you imagine giving birth without clean water?

The issue explained

Every day, more than 800 women die of complications in pregnancy or childbirth, yet these deaths are almost entirely preventable. In the context of the global health goals, progress for maternal health is falling behind other issues and runs the risk of being ignored.

The numbers

  • A total of 11% of all global maternal mortality—roughly 33,000 women a year—is caused by sepsis, an infection that can be prevented with adequate hygiene, including water and soap for washing before, during and after child birth.
  • Yet a recent WHO report found that, in the developing world, where most of these preventable maternal deaths occur, 38% of health facilities lack access to clean water
  • 19% lack access to sanitation
  • 35% do not have adequate hygiene and handwashing facilities.

To compound the issue, in many poor communities where maternal mortality is highest, women give birth at home rather than in a health facility, often without any skilled assistance. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 50% of all births take place at home, where access to WASH may be even less likely than in a health facility.

Lack of WASH creates other risks to maternal health, too. For example, many women carry up to 40 pounds of water over several miles and rough terrain every day because they do not have a source of water in or near their homes. Carrying heavy loads like a full jerry can or a bundle of firewood can lead to injury and other complications, such as uterine prolapse, a potentially serious condition that can cause incontinence, extreme physical discomfort, social ostracism and stigma.

Our approach

Significantly reducing preventable maternal mortality is part of the Sustainable Development Goals. Captured in Goal 3 on health, this target depends upon WASH for its success, among many other factors. Maternal health is a core part of our Healthy Start campaign, which aims to improve the health and nutrition of newborns, children, and mothers. Recognizing that maternal health and nutrition is an important indicator of well-being for their children, we advocate a holistic approach.

A major priority is increasing access to WASH in health facilities. Research has shown that many women give birth in environments without safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene supplies; one analysis showed that in Tanzania, only 1.5% of all births take place in an environment that has access to these basic services.

In order to reduce the health risk mothers and newborns face, arising from preventable WASH-related causes, we focus on advocacy to ensure that WASH is defined as integral to any strong, high-quality health system, collaborating with WHO, UNICEF, and governments worldwide to improve health systems strategies and ensure funding is directed to WASH in health facilities.

See our Clean birth, safe birth infographic.

In addition, our advocacy and programs seek to improve maternal nutrition, which can have an impact on birth weight and other newborn indicators, indicators that may have a lifelong impact on the child'sdevelopment. Whether we are working to address maternal anemia or end open defecation to reduce potential infection from fecal matter, our focus is on increasing domestic and international funding for WASH as a nutrition intervention, and on identifying promising practices in our programs worldwide.