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Sun 1 Apr 2007 03:20 PM

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Yemen tackles maternal death

Yemen government pledges to take steps against high maternal mortality rates, as new figures reveal eight women die giving birth every day.

A radical proposal by Yemen's Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood (SCMC) to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 could see the country's high maternal mortality rate drop drastically.

"We have made the proposal to the cabinet and we are awaiting its approval," said Fathia Mohammed, assistant secretary general of the SCMC, a government body.

Early marriage, combined with illiteracy, poor health services and poverty, have pushed Yemen's maternal mortality rate to the highest in the Arab world, Yemeni officials and specialists say.

Yemen's most recent Demographic, Maternal and Child Health Survey (DMCHS), showed that 48% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the age of 18.

In the poorest 20% of the population, 57% of girls were married before 18 and even among the richest families, more than 35% were married early. Overall, 14% were married before 15.

Yemen's Ministry of Health estimates that eight women die every day during childbirth, with an incidence rate of 366 women die per 100,000 live births. The situation is compounded by the fact that Yemen's fertility rate is one of the highest in the world, with an average of seven children per woman. Health specialists project the country's current 20 million population will reach 35 million in 2025.

Specialists have singled out early marriage as one of the main causes of Yemen's high rate of maternal mortality. "When a girl is married at the age of 13 or 14, then she becomes at risk of maternal death. This is very common in Yemen, especially in rural areas," said Fathia.

It has been estimated that up to 75% of maternal deaths are preventable, occurring because of a lack of access to - and availability of - high-quality reproductive health services, report officials at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Yemen. UNFPA says that 84% of all births in Yemen take place at home and only 20% of these births have trained attendants present.

"There are also cases where a husband refuses to take his wife to hospital for delivery," Fathia said, adding they are unaware of the delivery risks and distrustful of midwives.

"Health services reach only 60% of the population," Yahya al-Babeli, senior health advisor at the Basic Health Services Project, an initiative funded by USAID. "There is a huge reservoir of midwives, but the ministry of health has not hired them due to its complicated administrative system," he said.

According to al-Babeli, the USAID project has trained 120 midwives over the past two years in Amran, Marib, and Shabwa provinces. He added that it was necessary for there to be a large number of trained midwives in rural areas to prevent women dying while giving birth.

"We will also aim to train 500 midwives in those provinces where health indicators are very weak," he told press.

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