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
* Risk of death from a maternity related cause — taking
into account the country’s fertility rate and also competing causes of maternal
* 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
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
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
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
Carolyn Moynihan is
deputy editor of MercatorNet.