Aarti Dhar

NEW DELHI: Forty per cent of the world’s child marriages take place in India, resulting in a vicious cycle of gender discrimination, illiteracy and high infant and maternal mortality rates.

According to the UNICEF’s latest “State of the World’s Children-2009” report, discrimination on the basis of gender has a direct impact on maternal health. It can deny girls and women access to education, prevent them from receiving or seeking adequate health care and bar them from making critical decisions that can affect their health and that of the newborn.

Saving the lives of mothers and their newborns require more than just medical intervention. To be truly effective, these interventions must exist within an environment supportive of women’s rights. This, the report suggests, requires respect for the rights of women and children, quality education, a decent standard of living, protection from abuse, exploitation, discrimination and violence and empowerment of women.

Educating girls and women is not only pivotal to improving maternal and neonatal health, but it also has tangible benefits for families and societies.

Educated women are more likely to delay marriages, ensure their children are immunised, be better informed about nutrition for themselves and their children, and choose safer birth spacing practices. Their children have higher survival rates than those of uneducated women and tend to be better nourished.

Role of civil society

On the role of civil society in maternal and newborn health, the report says social inclusion should be a priority in health systems development, with an emphasis on including individual families, women and communities as partners in healthcare provision.

Communities can become partners in the promotion of their own health and well-being and that of their mother and children. Health systems can enlist communities through inclusion rather than coercion.