Mothers on the Margins

A mother holds her child up to the cameraEvery year between 230,000 and 398,000 women die before, during or just after childbirth. 99% of these women live in the Global South.

These figures are unacceptable in themselves, but some women are more at risk that others. Indigenous women, or those from other cultural minorities, are more likely to die or face complications related to pregnancy.

Some of the key issues include:


Indigenous women face discrimination on many levels, based on being poor, women and indigenous. Some indigenous women who attempt to access health care may experience discrimination from health care workers, such as being talked down to or treated harshly. These experiences discourage indigenous women from accessing the care they need from skilled health care workers when they are pregnant and in need of help.

Cultural barriers

Indigenous women may prevented from accessing health care when pregnant because of cultural barriers. For example, many indigenous communities do not speak the language of the majority in their countries. This means they will not be able to understand health care workers who most likely will not speak their language. Healthcare may be provided in a setting and in ways that are totally foreign to them, making the experience frightening and humiliating, and putting many women off seeking assistance.

Access to health care

Indigenous women often lack access to health centres because they are based too far from their communities and lack transport, or because of fees they cannot afford to pay. These barriers of course affect other remote communities as well.

Harmful local practices

In some communities harmful local practices can cause pregnant women harm or even death. For example, in some parts of Ethiopia, if a woman falls pregnant outside of marriage her abdomen may be heavily massaged to induce an abortion. This practice, coupled with a lack of access to health care, can have a tragic outcome.

Lack of voice at a political level

Indigenous communities and especially indigenous women lack a political voice to make changes for the better in their lives. Without a stronger political voice, changes will not be made to address the issue of women dying unnecessarily before, during, or just after childbirth.

Read our report to find out more about indigenous women’s maternal health in depth.

The international community

There is a focus on maternal health which is welcome and should help to address the major shortfalls in funding for health systems to help all women in the developing world. But the international community has so far not acknowledged or addressed the particular plight of indigenous women. This is part of a wider problem with the Millennium Development Goals, as they have not put the rights of the poorest and most marginalised at their heart.

The MDGs’ numbers-based targets can mean concentrating on those who are the easiest (and cheapest) to reach. This leads to the neglect of marginalised, hard-to-reach, indigenous communities. There must be a new emphasis on equity within the MDGs in order to improve the maternal health of indigenous women around the world.

Indigenous women have the seeds of solutions within their own communities. What the international community needs to provide is the political will to make these solutions available to all.