Mother countries

Does the State of the World’s Mothers report reveal the best performers?
Carolyn Moynihan | 6 May 2011
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Mother’s Day is celebrated on Sunday in many countries and, to keep governments on their toes, Save The Children has published its latest State of the World’s Mothers report. This index first divides countries into three tiers, according to their level of development, before ranking them by their performance on various indicators of women’s status and children’s status. 

To no-one’s surprise, surely, the Nordic countries feature prominently among the top performers in Tier I (the most developed countries); we are so used to hearing how happy people are in those dark, cold lands. Norway comes in at number one, Australia (the “lucky country”, not least because of its sunshine) second equal with Iceland, followed by Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand (one of the original welfare states), Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Britain.

Those at the bottom of Tier III (least developed) are fairly predictable too: eight of the 10 are in sub-Saharan Africa, while Afghanistan seems to be the worst place in the world to be a mother currently. Among the middling countries, Cuba appears to be more mother-friendly than Israel, South Korea and Mongolia.

It is mothers in the poorest countries that the report mainly wants to draw attention to, and, in spite of some improvements in basic maternal and infant care, the gaps are still shocking. All the same, it is instructive to focus on the richest countries in order to understand what it is that Save the Children, and much of the political and charitable community, wants for the rest of the world.

Here are the seven criteria used to assess women’s status in Tier I:

* Risk of death from a maternity related cause -- taking into account the country’s fertility rate and also competing causes of maternal death.

* Per cent of women using modern contraception, which “helps to ensure that a mother is physically and psychologically prepared to give birth and care for her child.”

* Female life expectancy.

* Expected number of years of female formal schooling.

* Ratio of estimated female to male income.

* Maternity leave benefits.

* Participation of women in national government -- number of seats in parliament etc.

A country does not have to excel on all these measures to reach the top. Norway’s maternal death risk (1 in 7,600), though very low by world standards, is greater than some other Tier I countries -- for example, Greece (1 in 31,800!), Ireland (1 in 17,800), Italy (1 in 15,200) or Poland (1 in 13,300). In fact, none of the top 10 countries have maternal death risks as low as these.

On the other hand, only the UK can match Norway in the proportion of women using “modern contraception” (82 per cent) -- although British women do not appear to use it half as well. In fact, high contraception usage is a feature of all the top 10 -- 70 per cent and upwards, except for Sweden (65 per cent, which is intriguing) and no stats are provided for Iceland.

Maternity leave provisions are generous in most of these countries also -- particularly in the Nordic group and the UK, and less so in Finland, New Zealand, Iceland, the Netherlands and Belgium. The ratio of female to male earnings follows a similar pattern, with Norway topping the list at 77 per cent. The proportion of parliamentary seats held by women ranges from a mere 20 per cent in France to 45 per cent in Sweden.

The children’s index for Tier I has only three items: under 5 mortality (very low in all countries of this group with the highest level, 8 per 1000, in the US); pre-primary school enrolment (between 81 and 100 per cent in the top 10 group except for Finland, at 65 per cent); and secondary school enrolment, which is universally high.

The interesting thing about these measures is that they are less concerned with the wellbeing of the child as such than with what they indicate about the status of women. Thus, Save the Children points out that early childhood care and education not only benefits children but can “provide essential support for working parents, particularly mothers.” That may be true, but debate continues about the benefits of institutional care for very young children, and to what extent the mothers of young children actually want to be employed outside the home.

At this point, if not earlier, we have to ask whether the report represents a rather partial view of what is a good life for mothers and children. This question becomes more pressing when we find that it completely overlooks one crucial factor in maternal and child wellbeing: whether the family unit is intact.

Sadly, many Tier I countries do not shine when it comes to this important test. An OECD report on family wellbeing published last month shows that STC’s top 10 countries are nearly all above the OECD average in the proportion of children born to unmarried couples. Such births range from 40 per cent in Finland to around 65 per cent in Iceland while Sweden, Norway and France are also above 50 per cent. The exceptions are Germany at about 33 per cent and Australia slightly higher

While it is true that the majority of non-marital births are now to cohabiting couples, these relationships are less stable than marriage and their breakdown is responsible for a sharp rise in parental separation rates and rising social welfare costs, a British report has found. The same report predicts that nearly half of children born today in Britain will be living in broken homes by the time they are 16. The OECD report confirms that the number of sole parents (mostly mothers) -- already responsible for one in four children in the US, New Zealand and Ireland -- is expected to rise -- and with it child poverty. If poverty from this source has been kept in check in the Nordic countries it is thanks to the very generous social welfare systems there.

These trends put a question mark over STC’s rankings, the criteria for assessing what type of social policies are best for mothers, and what exactly developing countries should be aspiring to.

Without question, good care in pregnancy and childbirth, education for children and adolescents -- both girls and boys, opportunities for women to work in paid employment and to participate in government -- these are good and important goals.

It is a matter of opinion, however, just how relevant to maternal wellbeing are some of the STC criteria.

Contraception is heavily implicated in both physical and social pathologies.

Equal income as between women and men is not something conducive to couples achieving the number of children they would like, or that many mothers care about.

The proportion of women in parliament does not necessarily lead to better family policies -- unless the family is redefined, as it so often is by politicians of both sexes, as a mother with one or more children supported by the state.

And, as already mentioned, providing “early childhood care and education” for very young children -- as distinct from kindergarten for older pre-schoolers -- so their mothers can go out to work is not what all mothers want and is of doubtful benefit to the children.

Perhaps next year someone could come up with a list of countries that are rather more friendly to mothers because they do not turn a blind eye to the need for something as a fundamental for wellbeing as a father and spouse.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Carolyn Moynihan and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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