As a child growing up, I remember my mother saving the best cuts at dinner for me, making sure my clothes were ironed, that I had books for school and saw a doctor every time I ran a temperature. At that tender age, I already knew that all a mother ever wants is for her children to be healthy, develop well and thrive when they grow up.
But what the best mothers have to offer is sometimes simply not good enough. In slums and rural and remote areas where many mothers themselves are malnourished, lack social protection and access to health services and education, what she can offer her child can be very limited.
Simply put, a mother’s greatest dream is for a child that survives and thrives, but it remains a dream for many in Southeast Asia.
That is not to dismiss great strides made in parts of the region. In Save the Children’s "2014 State of the World’s Mothers" report, Singapore has again been ranked 15th out of 178 countries, ahead of Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the US. Cambodia (ranked 132nd) and Vietnam (ranked 93rd) have both made significant improvements in maternal and child health over the past 15 years; Cambodia reduced lifetime risk of maternal mortality by two-thirds while Vietnam reduced it by half. Children in Thailand (ranked 72nd) are now 40 per cent less likely to die before their fifth birthday than they were 15 years ago.
Indeed, these improvements are impressive, but they also mask huge disparities in maternal and child well-being. These can be in terms of the divide between the rich and the poor or between urban and rural. In both Cambodia and Vietnam, a child living in a rural or mountainous areas is 2.5 times more likely to die than a child living in an urban area. In Laos, less than 5 per cent of the poorest quintile have trained help when they deliver their babies, compared to 90 per cent in the richest quintile.
Globally, nearly half of the 6.6 million children dying each year do so because their bodies are weak from a lack of the nutrients needed to fight off common illnesses. Many babies are born small as a direct result of malnourished mothers, which highlights the critical importance of better nutrition for women and girls. In Cambodia alone, 40 per cent of children are stunted, many of them from poor and rural communities. Children who are stunted at a young age will not develop mentally and physically as they should, making it even harder for them to break out of the poverty cycle.
Breast milk is widely regarded as one of the key solutions to protecting infants from stunting. It is the single best source of food and nutrients for any infant – breastfed babies are less likely to be malnourished, have stronger immune systems, are less susceptible to obesity and diabetes later in life, and have a higher IQ than non-breastfed babies.
Yet because mothers are not provided with a supportive environment to breastfeed their children, many are on formula or other liquids at just a couple of weeks or months old. Mothers working in informal sectors do not have the maternity leave they need. Some are unaware of the benefits of breastfeeding due to the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, while others lack support to exclusively breastfeed.
Women also need protection in order to have babies only when their bodies are ready to conceive and deliver. A teenage girl is twice as likely to die from pregnancy complications as a woman in her 20s. In parts of Southeast Asia, teenage pregnancy is on the rise and with a lack of sex and reproductive health education and availability of safe abortion services, girls are left having unprotected sex and seeking illegal abortions to handle unplanned pregnancies. For instance, Thailand has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the region, at 54 per 1,000 live births, with many other girls seeking illegal abortions as the country forbids the procedure except for cases of rape or serious risk to the mother’s health.
In order to improve the well-being of mothers and children, deliberate choices need to be made by families, communities, corporates and governments to support and protect them. It is ensuring that every mother and child has access to a health worker, is supported in breastfeeding, is protected from childbirth until a suitable age and is able to go to school.
All a mother wants is for her child to survive and thrive. This Mother’s Day, Save the Children calls on families, communities, corporations and governments to give mothers the best
gift they could ever ask for: a supportive environment for them to raise their children.
Greg Duly is the Southeast and East Asian regional director for Save the Children.