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Maternal health and Canada's global gender equality ranking

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Kathleen A. Lahey, Queen’s University
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s series marking the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

In 2010, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) adopted a new gender equality measure that dropped Canada from number 8 on sex equality issues to number 16. The new Gender Inequality Index (GII) places more emphasis on how well resources, opportunities, and incomes are shared by women and men in each country, and less emphasis on Canada’s wealth.

Upon receiving the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) most recent report on global rates of maternal mortality, the UNDP used this data to update the 2010 GII. Rates of maternal mortality are one of the many factors taken into consideration in ranking countries in the GII, and this new maternal mortality data enabled the UNDP to present a more accurate picture of the status of women in every country. The updated GII was released with the UNDP’s celebratory 2011 International Women’s Day message.

Canada’s ranking in this new WHO report on maternal mortality was so poor that it resulted in Canada being downgraded on the 2010 GII from 16 to 18 in the global rankings. Canada is now tied with Portugal for 18th place in the 2010 GII. 

International development and equality rankings do not change with every shift in the wind. Each index is made up of numerous aggregate figures. For any one component of the index to push Canada down so far in the United Nations GII rankings – and so fast – is unusual. While Canada has been falling in these international indexes for several years, this is a major downgrade.

Close examination of the WHO data reveals that Canada’s maternal mortality ratio (maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, ‘MMR’) has been growing steadily since 1990. Canada’s MMR was six deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990, and had doubled to twelve deaths per 100,000 by 2008, the year for which these data were collected. This ratio is an absolute count and not a relative number. In 2008, women had a greater chance of surviving childbirth in Boznia and Herzegovia (MMR of 9), Greece (2), Slovakia (6), and Portugal (7), for example, than in Canada.

The WHO also reported that Canada’s MMR ranking for 2008 was 94 percent worse than its ranking had been in 1990. The main headline of this report was that as of 2008, the average global maternal mortality ratio had fallen by 34 percent since 1990. It is alarming that Canada’s ratio did not improve at all, but is now almost twice as bad as it was in 1990.

Perhaps Canada needs a special watchdog committee to ensure that the country’s domestic health spending accountably and transparently safeguards maternal health.

Kathleen A Lahey is a professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University, Kingston.

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Equity Matters

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Gender equity