By Emily Maistrellis
Walif was only 16 and his younger sister, Nassim, just 11 when their mother died in childbirth in Butajira, Ethiopia.
Both Walif and Nassim had been promising students, especially Walif, who had hoped to score high on the national civil service exam after completing secondary school. But following the death of their mother, their father left them to go live with a second wife in the countryside. Walif dropped out of school to care for his younger siblings, as did Nassim and two other sisters, who had taken jobs as house girls in Addis Ababa and Saudi Arabia.
Nassim was married at 15, to a man for whom she bore no affection, so that she would no longer be an economic burden to the family. By the age of 17, she already had her first child. Seven years after his mother died, Walif was still caring for his younger siblings, piecing together odd jobs to pay for their food, although he could not afford the school fees.
In all, with one maternal death, four children’s lives were derailed, not just emotionally but economically.
More than 1,000 miles away, in the rural Nyanza province of Kenya, a woman in the prime of her life died while giving birth to her seventh child, leaving a void that her surviving husband struggled to fill. He juggled tending the family farm, maintaining his household, raising his children and keeping his languishing newborn son alive.
But he didn’t know how to feed his son, so he gave him cow’s milk mixed with water. At three months old, the baby was severely malnourished. A local health worker visited the father and showed him how to feed and care for the baby. That visit saved the baby’s life.
As these stories illustrate, the impact of a woman’s death in pregnancy or childbirth goes far beyond the loss of a woman in her prime, and can cause lasting damage to her children — consequences now documented in new research findings from two groups: Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, and a collaboration among Family Care International, the International Center for Research on Women and the KEMRI-CDC Research Collaboration.
The causes and high number of maternal deaths in Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya — the five countries explored in the research — are well documented, but this is the first time research has catalogued the consequences of those deaths to children, families, and communities.
The studies found stark differences between the wellbeing of children whose mothers did and did not survive childbirth:
• Out of 59 maternal deaths, only 15 infants survived to two months, according to a study in Kenya.
• In Tanzania, researchers found that most newborn orphans weren’t breastfed. Fathers rarely provided emotional or financial support to their children following a maternal death, affecting their nutrition, health care, and education.
• Across the settings studied, children were called upon to help fill a mother’s role within the household following her death, which often led to their dropping out of school to take on difficult farm and household tasks beyond their age and abilities.
How to use these new research findings to advocate for greater international investment in women’s health?