Global health champion for Pakistani women

(Edmonton) Each year, half a million women in developing countries die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Each day, 1,600 women—equivalent to four planeloads of passengers—die needlessly.

“Imagine the indignation of the public if four planeloads of people died every day,” says Zubia Mumtaz, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. “But because these young women die quietly, unmourned and unacknowledged, in remote corners of the world, their deaths go unnoticed.”

Mumtaz, who grew up in Kenya and has spent 15 years working in Pakistan, is researching the root causes of these deaths and how they can be reduced.

Over half of these deaths take place in just six countries, and Pakistan is one of them, Mumtaz says, and that most of these deaths are avoidable.

Her research shows that maternal deaths in Pakistan are not random, but the result of systemic social, political and economic inequities. “An unequal gender order interacts with a hierarchical and unequal class order. This disadvantages the very poor women,” she explains.

“It is these women in Pakistan who are the most likely to die during childbirth.”

Through her research, and time spent living in Pakistan, Mumtaz has discovered that gender and class directly impact a woman’s ability to access health services. It is, she says, a very complex relationship.

These inequities are systemic and are woven into the way maternal health policies are developed and the health-care system designed.

“The health-care system in Pakistan is designed to serve the rich. Poor women have very limited access to maternal health care,” says Mumtaz.

Recently, the government of Pakistan created the Community Midwifery program. This program trains midwives to provide maternity services to women in remote rural villages, but because the community midwives practice in the private sector, Mumtaz questions whether they are providing care to the very poor women, who by definition are unable to pay.

“I am exploring whether very poor or socially marginalized women can access these midwifery services.” She will also try to determine what can be done to ensure the services reach the most vulnerable women.

The findings of Mumtaz’s research will help the government of Pakistan identify poor, socially excluded women and determine how services can be targeted to them.  It will also help in training midwives to be sensitive to the special needs of poor women and ensure the needs are addressed.

Ultimately, Mumtaz hopes to effect change that will help to save the lives of countless women in Pakistan.