As a Bangladeshi woman, I could not have felt more fortunate when I decided to give birth in America. It was a natural choice for my American husband and I. After almost a decade working to ensure US foreign policy protects women’s reproductive health and rights, I was well-aware that every year, approximately 529,000 women and girls needlessly die in childbirth. What I could not have imagined was how close I would come to becoming one of those numbers.
I come from a country that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and though Bangladesh has famously slashed its maternal mortality numbers by 40%, too many women are still dying. The majority of births still take place at home, without the presence of a skilled birth attendant.
I felt so confident about my hospital choice in Washington. Deep inside, I understood how lucky I was to be able to access what I thought was some of the best health care in the world. During the course of my pregnancy, I never worried about complications during my delivery. I could not have been more wrong.
After 30 hours of labor, two hours of pushing, my doctors finally decided to perform an emergency C-section. To make matters worse, my epidural had slipped, and the pain was so severe that I got a 104 degree fever. I began to uncontrollably shake, my body was so hot from my temperature. When my daughter was born, the doctors rushed her away from me so she would not catch my fever. I did not even get a glimpse of her. Three hours after my baby was born, I finally got to hold her in my arms.
While all the commotion of my delivery took me by complete surprise, the one thing I kept telling myself over and over again was, “I am in America. I will be fine. I know I am not going to die in childbirth in Washington!”
But that day, I came very close to losing both myself and my baby. The experience was incredibly traumatic, and left me with severe hyperthyroidism. I developed a condition called “Grave’s Disease,” and my left eye began to protrude. The struggle women go through to give birth became a tangible reality for me.
It also made me realize that pregnancy related deaths are not casualties of the “developing world.” It happens in “developed” countries as well. In fact, America has one of the worst maternal mortality rates amongst industrialized nations. The U.S. ranks behind over 40 other countries when it comes to maternal death rates, with 11 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies. Most people have no idea about these facts.
Feminists have long stated that women cannot be empowered unless we are in control of our reproduction. At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo when the spotlight was put on women’s rights, population policies stopped being about controlling population and started being about empowering women. The idea was that if women had access to education and higher salaried jobs, they would choose to have smaller families, thus lowering fertility rates. That was over 15 years ago.
Today in 2012 experts estimate that 215 million women around the world lack access to contraceptives. Millions more are left injured in pregnancy related complications such as fistula. Mothers from America to Bangladesh are still dying in childbirth.
This Mother’s Day, stop and remember the numbers. Remember that each number represents a real woman, someone’s daughter, sister, wife. Take the time to take a stand for the right that each and every woman has, from Washington to Dhaka, to not die giving life.
Cross-posted from Anushay’s blog.