According to the latest UN official figures, more than 500,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related causes. This means one death every minute. Meanwhile approximately 10 million women annually suffer pregnancy-related injuries and disabilities.

A study by the United Nations Human Rights Office states unequivocally that maternal mortality and morbidity is a matter of human rights, and that a human rights-based approach is essential to addressing this serious global problem.

In her address to a Human Rights Council panel devoted to the issue, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, “the scale of maternal mortality and morbidity across the world is a stark reminder of the inequality and discrimination women in all parts of the world experience throughout their lifetimes.”

“The application of a human rights approach helps us understand that maternal mortality and morbidity are not simply issues of public health but the consequence of lack of fulfilment of multiple rights,” Pillay said.

In her address, the High Commissioner said, “There are multiple human rights dimensions to maternal mortality and morbidity, ranging from how these compromise the right to life, to be equal in dignity, to education, to be free to seek, receive and impart information, to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress, to freedom from discrimination, and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

Seven human rights principles, which include “accountability, participation, transparency, empowerment, sustainability, international cooperation, and non-discrimination,” underpin State obligations in this area, she said.

She added that a rights-based approach also helped illuminate the connections “between poverty, discrimination, equality and health.”

As set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the international community has committed to reducing maternal mortality and morbidity by three-quarters by 2015. Yet, Goal 5 on improving maternal health remains the most off-track of all the MDGs.

“A key result of the human rights-based approach is that ultimately women will be able to exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes, including those affecting their sexual and reproductive health, family planning, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth, and in addressing unsafe abortion,” she said.

The High Commissioner also expressed hope that the OHCHR study “will assist the General Assembly to ensure that a human rights based approach is fully integrated in the MDG process on this and other topics” at the MDG Summit in September.

Colombia - on behalf of Burkina Faso and New Zealand - read a statement endorsed by 108 countries* which invited the High Commissioner to present OHCHR’s study to the MDGs Summit to advance discussions on the importance of integrating a human rights perspective in realising the targets.

Represented on the panel were UN independent experts in the areas of health; economic, social and cultural rights; representatives of UNDP, UNFPA, WHO;  as well as maternal mortality and morbidity experts, Professor Fathalla, Dr Frisancho and Dr Yamin. 

The 14th session of the Human Rights Council takes place from 31 May to 18 June at Palais des Nations in Geneva. More information is available on the HRC 14th session webpage.

Read the full speech of the High Commissioner

* These countries include Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Bolivia, Botswana, Bulgaria, Burundi, Canada, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chile, Congo, Costa Rica, Cote d’ Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, France, Gabon, Ghana, Germany, Guinea, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Maldives, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia.

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