The United Nations recently issued The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2015, the latest assessment of progress towards the eight MDGs. In short, they have had mixed results. This article is part of a blog series reflecting on the MDGs and the U.N. report. These are produced in partnership with our colleagues at RESULTS, a grassroots advocacy organization. They are lobbying for bipartisan legislation in the Senate that can impact the lives of mothers and children worldwide. (See the Fact Sheet.)
>>Authored by Marion Cosquer and Sabina Rogers
MDG 5: Improve maternal health
Target 5.A: Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio
In 1990, 380 pregnant women were dying for every 100,000 live births. As of 2013, the global maternal mortality ratio has decreased by 45 percent to 210 women per 100,000 live births. The highest gains were seen in South and Southeast Asia with a 64 percent and 57 percent reduction, respectively. Developing regions overall achieved a 46 percent reduction. Maternal survival has been aided by a one-third increase in childbirth attendance by skilled health personnel. Thus, the news in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals Report for MDG 5 is promising.
Nonetheless, progress towards improving maternal health so far falls far short of the targets set under MDG 5 and has lagged far behind the other MDGs. Additionally, global figures tend to mask regional inequalities. For example, there were 510 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in sub-Saharan Africa compared to 190 in South Asia and 140 in Southeast Asia.
Progress in raising the proportion of births delivered with skilled personnel has been modest over the last 15 years, reflecting the lack of universal access to care. Indeed, one in four babies still being delivered without skilled personnel and wide disparities are found among regions. For example, there is a 52 percent spread between the largest rural/urban disparity across regions:
- In Central Africa, 32 percent of births were attended by skilled personnel compared to 84 percent in urban areas.
- In East Asia, there is no difference between urban and rural areas.
Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia pull down the developing region average. Overall, 56 percent of births in rural areas are attended by skilled health personnel compared to 87 percent of births in urban areas.
Target 5.B: Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health
After 25 years of slow progress, only half of pregnant women in developing regions receive the minimum of four antenatal care visits recommended by the World Health Organization. Once more, coverage levels in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia trail the other regions. Sub-Saharan Africa has barely increased from 47 percent to 49 percent of pregnant women; South Asia has the lowest coverage at 36 percent (though it increased from 23 percent). Moreover, despite having doubled contraceptive use  in sub-Saharan Africa from 13 to 28 percent, sub-Saharan Africa still trails all other regions.
Proven health-care interventions can prevent or manage the complications that cause maternal deaths, such as hemorrhage, infections, and high blood pressure. These complications are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, accounting for 86 percent of all deaths worldwide in 2013. Use of contraceptives also contributes to maternal health by reducing unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and maternal deaths.
The report tells us that contraceptive use has risen in all regions and 90 percent of users were using effective contraceptive methods. However, the unmet need is still high (24-25 percent) in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceana. Other developing regions hover around 11-14 percent unmet need, and the overall use in those regions is significantly higher than in sub-Saharan Africa and Oceana.
The adolescent birth rate shows a mixed story. While the global rate for developing regions has fallen by half (from 34 to 17 births per 1000 girls), it hides poor progress in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. Indeed, in three regions (Southeast Asia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and North Africa), some of the gains in the adolescent birth rate from 2000 reversed in 2015. Moreover, progress in East Asia was stagnant over the last 15 years.
The report calls for urgently needed intensified efforts to delay childbearing and prevent unintended pregnancies among adolescents. By increasing opportunities to go to school and for paid employment, we would see an overall improved maternal and child health as well as reduced poverty, greater gender equality, and women’s empowerment.
Maternal health in the post-2015 development agenda
The new Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which are set to be approved at the Sustainable Development Summit September 25 to 27, encompasses a broader, more ambitious and inclusive health goal. Goal 3 seeks to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” Indeed, it seeks to reduce the global mortality ratio to fewer than 70 deaths per 100,000 live births. Under Goal 3, countries will agree to ensure, by 2030, universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs — for which the microfinance sector can be a key partner.
The report concludes on the inequalities in data availability on maternal health among and within regions. The lack of data is a key factor contributing to the unfinished MDG agenda, hampering efforts to establish priorities on national, regional, and global health. In the post-2015 period, it is imperative to have better and more data, especially concerning registration of births and deaths, in order to set adequate policy priorities, target resources more efficiently, and measure improvements.
In order to build on the successes of the MDGs and achieve Goal 3 of the SDGs, the 18th Microcredit Summit will focus on integrated health and microfinance as one of the six pathways out of poverty. Empowerment of women — which can help reduce maternal mortality more quickly and efficiently — will also be an important theme.
 “Contraceptive use” is defined concerning women aged 15-49, married or in union, who are using any method of contraception