This page offers topic-specific guidance on the use of the Human Rights and Reproductive Health Matrix, created by United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported POLICY Project Human Rights Working Group. To view other aspects of the Matrix, including guidance on other topics, please click on the Matix icon above.

Safe Motherhood


Safe motherhood encompasses a series of initiatives, practices, protocols and service delivery guidelines designed to ensure that women receive high-quality gynecological, family planning, prenatal, delivery and postpartum care, in order to achieve optimal health for the mother, fetus and infant during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum.

Links to Reproductive Health

Unsafe motherhood consists in maternal mortality or morbidity due to preventable pregnancy and childbirth-related causes.

Safe motherhood decreases maternal and infant mortality and morbidity. Although, most maternal and infant deaths can be prevented through safe motherhood practices, millions of women worldwide are affected by maternal mortality and morbidity from preventable causes.

Human Rights Implicated

Right to life: This right obliges governments to take all necessary steps to avoid preventable maternal deaths, which violate women's right to life.

Right to health including sexual and reproductive health: This right means that all individuals should be able to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health and to have access to the means and services to enable them to maintain or restore health.

This right entitles women to receive timely and high-quality maternal care, including antenatal and postpartum care, assistance by a skilled birth attendant during delivery, and emergency obstetric care. It also entitles women to receive adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. Finally, it requires that HIV-positive women also receive adequate maternal health care, so that their health needs are taken into consideration along with prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Rights relating to privacy, liberty and security: These rights empower women in deciding for themselves, outside of the scrutiny of others, whether and when to seek health care. Social or legal requirements that women obtain the consent of another (often, but not always, a spouse) in order to obtain maternal health care thus deprive them of this autonomy and affect those rights. Yet this autonomy is crucial to help women access the means to maintain or restore maternal health.

In addition, inability to seek and obtain maternal health care due to consent requirements, or to an ineffective health care system, causes needless suffering and violates women's right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment.

Rights relating to equality: These rights include the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of race and gender; and the right to the equal protection of the laws, including in entering into and within marriage. Failing to provide women with health care services that only they need constitutes impermissible discrimination against women (CEDAW General Comment 24, Women and Health, 1999). Thus legal, social and economic barriers to women's access to maternal health care constitute discrimination against women.

A woman's right to be free from discrimination is also violated when she cannot obtain the health care she needs on a basis of equality with men. This happens when women are required to provide proof of spousal consent, when men do not need such consent from another person to obtain health care.

Rights to education and information: These rights include the right to education; and the right to receive and impart information, including education and information relating to sexual and reproductive health without any discrimination. Education and information are crucial in communities to raise awareness of unsafe motherhood as a social injustice issue. Education and information can help families and communities provide women with the adequate nutrition they need during pregnancy and to identify the signs indicating the necessity to obtain maternal health care.

Right to reproductive freedom: Reproductive freedom enables individuals to plan the number, timing and spacing of their children. This right supports women's autonomy in deciding when and how often to become mothers.

Rights relating to pregnancy and childbirth: Women are specifically entitled to receive the special protection and care they need during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period. In addition, they should not suffer discrimination in employment because of maternity, and they are entitled to paid maternity leave.

Relevant Human Rights Documents

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights commits governments to ensuring their populations' right to health. More specifically, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women commits governments to "ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period?as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation."

The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, and the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, encourage governments to take appropriate measures to reduce maternal mortality, and to ensure women's rights relating to safe pregnancy and childbirth.

Finally, in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, countries pledged to improve maternal health and reduce the maternal mortality ratio by 75% by 2015.

Key Human Rights Arguments You Could Use

Ensuring women's human rights amounts to providing them with autonomy in deciding to seek and obtain maternal health care. It is a critical first step in enabling them to access a full range of services that enable them to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth. This autonomy and decision-making power are thus crucial elements in reducing maternal and infant mortality.

As a corollary, countries must take all necessary measures to ensure those rights. This includes the removal of legal and financial barriers, the establishment of adequate transportation, and information and education campaigns on safe motherhood to remove social barriers to women's access to maternal health care.

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