Why are midwives needed?
The world has seen a steady decline in maternal and newborn deaths since 1990. Yet hundreds of thousands of women and newborns continue to die each year during pregnancy and childbirth. An estimated 289,000 women and about 3 million newborn babies died in 2013 alone. The vast majority lost their lives to complications and illnesses that could have been prevented with proper antenatal, delivery and postnatal care – services provided by midwives.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advocates for “skilled care at every birth” by an accredited health professional, such as a midwife, doctor or nurse, who has been trained to manage uncomplicated pregnancies, deliveries and the immediate postnatal period. Skilled birth attendants also need to be able to identify complications and obtain timely emergency assistance.
As trusted health professionals, midwives play a critical role in averting maternal and newborn deaths and injuries, promoting community health, and collecting data when deaths do occur to help shape future responses. Midwives also help prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Globally, midwives have played a major role in advancing progress towards Millennium Development Goals 4, 5 and 6, the goals on reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and combatting HIV and AIDS, respectively. Still, these goals represent an unfinished agenda, and midwives will continue to play a pivotal role in reducing maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity in the years to come.
What midwives do
Midwives – and people with midwifery skills – are the main caregivers for women and their newborns during pregnancy, labour, childbirth and in the post-delivery period. A well-trained midwife can provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services, including antenatal care, safe delivery care, and postpartum/postnatal care. Midwives also provide family planning counselling and services to prevent and treat malaria, tetanus and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and congenital syphilis.
Midwives can also do much to advance women’s and girls’ rights. By providing information and counselling, they can help to prevent female genital mutilation (FGM), and they can offer support and assistance to survivors of gender-based violence. They can also provide reproductive health services to adolescents, who are often denied access to these services at great cost to their health and rights.
Seventy-three countries have 96% of the world's maternal deaths, but only 42% of the world's midwives, nurses and doctors.
The midwife shortage
Midwives, when properly trained and supported, offer one of the most cost-effective and culturally sensitive paths to achieving universal health care. Yet midwives are in short supply in many developing countries, and they often lack the skills and supportive environment to perform their jobs well. The deficits are highest in the areas where needs are greatest.
There are many challenges to increasing the availability of midwifery services. Despite the enormous responsibilities they bear, midwives – who are overwhelmingly women – frequently endure poor pay, low status and a lack of support. Gender biases often play a role in the problems midwives experience.
What is UNFPA doing?
UNFPA, together with a network of over 30 partners, works at the global, regional and national level to scale up midwifery services around the world. UNFPA and its partners also work to strengthen midwifery training, institutions, associations and regulations. For example, from 2008 to 2013, a joint programme by UNFPA and International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) helped create midwifery action plans in some 23 countries. Today, UNFPA is helping to strengthen midwifery workforce policies in over 65 countries. And some 26 midwife advisors have been placed in low-resource countries to provide dedicated support to strengthening midwifery. UNFPA also builds expertise through the dissemination of guidance and good practices, which help policymakers and health professionals learn from experiences around the world.
Midwifery is a key focus of UNFPA’s Maternal Health Thematic Fund, which helps train thousands of midwives each year. UNFPA has also provided books and equipment to over 275 midwifery schools, and has so far helped to train over 15,000 midwives and over 10,000 midwifery educators in life-saving skills, family planning information and teaching skills. With UNFPA’s support, over 45 national and sub-national midwifery associations have been strengthened, and midwifery curricula have been standardized or reviewed in over 35 countries. Higher education programmes – such as new bachelor’s degree programmes – have been launched in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ghana, Haiti, Pakistan, Somalia and Zambia. Midwifery master’s degree programmes have been introduced in Pakistan and Uganda. In 2013, UNFPA also helped to re-open the midwifery school in Haiti, which was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.
Today, support for midwifery services is growing. Emphasis on midwifery in the UN Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child Strategy resulted in over 45 national commitments towards strengthening midwifery services. And the International Day of the Midwife is now celebrated around the world on 5 May, highlighting the importance of midwives everywhere.
The State of the World’s Midwifery
In 2011, UNFPA and 30 partners published the first-ever State of the World’s Midwifery report, with data from 58 developing countries. The report called for bold initiatives by governments, regulatory bodies, training institutions and others to scale up investments in midwifery services. The latest State of the World’s Midwifery, published in June 2014, offers data from 73 low- and middle- income countries, and highlights the acute shortage of midwives in the places where there the needs are greatest.
Updated 6 July 2015.