Missing Mothers: How acronyms and jargon can kill innocent women

iwd_5“This year alone, more than 500,000 women will die during pregnancy or childbirth. That’s one woman missing every minute of every day. We call these women ‘missing’ because their deaths could have been avoided. In fact, 80 per cent of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternal health services.

“We know where and how these women are dying, and we have the resources to prevent these deaths. Yet, maternal mortality is still one of the most neglected problems internationally.”

This sobering message from Unicef is worth reflecting upon as we mark another International Women’s Day.

Unfortunately, critical issues like these often don’t make the news – or worse, are relegated to the background as inevitable. As Joseph Stalin said in a different context, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths a mere statistic.

The challenge to the development community is to go beyond simply counting deaths in cold, clinical terms. UNICEF has recently released a two minute video, “Missing Mothers” as a tool for international development professionals to use in raising awareness of the issue of mothers dying needlessly.

Having a baby is both a very natural process and a joyous occasion for the parents and extended family concerned. Yet having a baby still remains one of the biggest health risks for millions of women worldwide.

Time to make missing women count...
Time to make missing women count...
As Unicef’s 2009 State of the World’s Children report reminded us recently, 1,500 women die every day in the world due to complications arising during pregnancy and childbirth. The chances of a woman in developing countries dying before or during childbirth are 300 times greater than for a woman in an industrialised country like the United States. Such a gap does not exist in any other social indicator.

The largest number of maternal deaths in the world is in South Asia. In India alone, an estimated 141,000 women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth. Recently, my Indian journalist friend Kalpana Sharma wrote a perceptive column on this topic in The Hindu newspaper.

She noted: “The solution has been known for years. The problem is the will to make it work. We also know that the solution would benefit everyone, not just women. Yet, affordable and accessible health care, for instance, has not received the thrust that is needed.”

The Missing Women video suggests to activists and campaigners that action can start with five steps: 1. Educate girls, young women and yourself; 2. Respect their rights; 3. Empower them to participate; 4. Invest in maternal health; 5. Protect against violence and abuse. The Unicef website, meanwhile, lists 10 ways in which concerned individuals can make a difference.

All very commendable and necessary — but not sufficient. With all the good intentions in the world, Unicef’s experts and officials come across as, well, detached and geeky. They don’t connect well enough to the real world people whose needs and interests they are genuinely trying to serve. Their messages are lost somewhere in their precise terms, jargon and endless acronyms.

Just take, for example, the very phrase of maternal mortality itself. Precise but also very stiff and dry. Who outside the medical and development circles uses such terms in conversation? When I write or make films about the issue, I prefer to call it ‘mothers dying needlessly while having babies’. Yes, it’s more wordy and perhaps less exacting. But most ordinary people would get what I’m talking about.

If the jargon-ridden language reads dry in text, it completely puts off people when they watch such words being spoken on video. Such films may pander to the Narcissism of Unicef mandarins, but they completely flop in terms of public communication and engagement.

This is the same point I made in October 2008 when commenting on the Unicef-inspired first Global Handwashing Day: “Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.”

Jim Grant’s deputy, journalist Tarzie Vittachi, who came over to the UN children’s agency after a stint at the UN population fund, used to say: “Governments don’t have babies; people do”. We might extend that to: inter-governmental agencies don’t have babies; real women do. That may be why Unicef insists on delivering its life-saving messages so riddled in politically and scientifically correct, but so sterile language.

Unicef’s YouTube channel has a number of short videos related to what they insist on calling maternal mortality. Here’s an example where Unicef’s Chief of Health Dr. Peter Salama says it’s really an unconscionable number of deaths, and a human tragedy on a massive scale:

MDG5: Save Our Moms!
MDG5: Save Our Moms!
Reducing by three quarters the number of mothers dying needlessly while having babies is one of the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs, the holy grail in international development since the United Nations adopted these in 2000, setting 2015 as the target date.

We have now passed the half way mark, but progress has been patchy and unimpressive. And it will remain so as long as the UN agencies and other development players insist on peddling jargon and acronyms. Considering the issues of life and death involved here, we must view bad communication as a killer — joining the ranks of unsafe drinking water and violence against women and girls.

Writing an editorial for SciDev.Net in September 2005, I noted: “All development workers and UN officials should take a simple test: explain to the least technical person in your office the core message and relevance of your work. Many jargon-using, data-wielding, acronym-loving development workers would probably fail this test. But unless development-speak is translated into simpler language, the MDGs will remain a buzzword confined to development experts and activists.”

I don’t believe in ghosts, but it’s time to bring back the spirits of Jim Grant and Tarzie Vittachi to Unicef to again humanise the agency so mired in its own ‘geekspeak’. The intellectual rigours of evidence-based, scientific analysis must be balanced with clarity and accessibility. It’s fine to be informed by science, but learn to say it simply, clearly and concisely.

The lives of half a million women and millions of children depend on it.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

One thought on “Missing Mothers: How acronyms and jargon can kill innocent women”

  1. Nalaka, thank you for this brilliant article…sadly, hardly anyone bothered about Women’s International Day 2009. All I read about was the Zonta Awards…how charming that even a glossy fashion magazine editor bagged one!

    Regarding your insightful contribution, I hope all of the UN and affiliated ‘development assistance’ types read it! As for MDGs, well, those whom they are supposed to serve don’t even know about such initiatives….but of course, its a nice selling point to justify the existence of the UN and the rest of them-types and the workshops!

    Hope you are willing to open the debate about “2009 The Year of English and ICTs” and what it takes to implement such an ambitions plan for Sri Lanka.


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