Over the past 10 years, the Republic of Congo has reduced the number of women dying in childbirth by 50 percent and, if progress continues at this rate, may reach the Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent by 2015. Experts cite improvements to maternal healthcare and efforts to enhance family planning programs as contributing factors to this sharp decrease in maternal death.

The majority of women in Congo live in urban areas and give birth in health care facilities, but these facilities were often inadequate. According to Dr. Leon Herve Iloki, director of the National Observatory on Maternal and Newborn Mortality, birthing facilities have improved tremendously. “Forceps? You didn’t have them. You didn’t have other instruments for helping in delivery. Even beds were not always there.”

The government, with the help of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), also began offering women free Caesarean sections in 2011. The procedure used to cost $500 or more, an insurmountable obstacle to many poor women whose choices were to come up with the money or “die there, on the table,” according to Rose-Marie Moundele, a woman whose sister-in-law recently delivered a child by Caesarean. UNFPA has also supported the government’s initiative to prevent and treat obstetric fistula, a preventable medical conditioncaused by prolonged labor. Women can now receive free care for this condition. Obstetric fistula is a major contributor to maternal death among poor women.

Experts also credit family planning for the decline of maternal mortality. UNFPA has supported the Congo Health Ministry’s attempts to create better family planning programs.”Promoting family planning is among the cheapest investments to reduce maternal mortality,” said UNFPA Representative David Lawson at the launch of the initiative in November 2011. A recent study conducted by the Ministry of Health showed that 45 percent of Congolese women use contraceptives.

Progress, however, has been uneven. For women living in rural areas and for indigenous women, there is little access to quality health centers. Although midwives attend births in rural facilities, improvements to infrastructure are needed. Health officials in the country hope to see further developments in other areas of maternal health as well, including cheaper pre-natal checkups and strengthening of family planning and HIV/AIDS programs.

Media Resources: Al Jazeera 9/18/2013; Irin News 1/21/2013, 3/1/2013; United Nations Population Fund; World Health Organization 3/2010

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