DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Investing in an "army of midwives" across Nigeria will cut the number of stillbirths and women dying during or after giving birth, a leading women's rights activist said ahead of the West African nation's first global conference on midwifery.
Nigeria has the world's highest rate of stillbirths after Pakistan - one in every 23 pregnancies. It recorded more than 300,000 stillbirths last year, while around one in 120 women die during childbirth, according to data from medical journal The Lancet and the World Bank.
Toyin Saraki, founder of women's rights charity Wellbeing Foundation Africa, said the value of midwives in Nigeria is being shown in the unlikeliest of places - camps for internally displaced people (IDP) uprooted by Boko Haram militants.
Around one in five babies are dying during childbirth in northeast Nigeria, where the Islamist group has waged a six-year insurgency, yet the survival rate of pregnancies delivered in IDP camps in the region is almost 100 percent, Saraki said.
"A woman there is only footsteps away from a midwife and clinic, with her family around her, and a doctor on standby," said Saraki, who suffered a stillbirth in Nigeria due to a delay in finding an anesthetist for an emergency caesarian section.
"If ever there was an argument for having midwives present at delivery and a doctor on call if needed, this is surely it."
Saraki spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the Global Midwifery Conference in Abuja, which will feature lectures, brainstorming sessions and training on innovations such as portable ultrasound scanners that plug into smartphones.
The midwives will not only learn how to save a mother and child's life, but also how to detect women at risk of domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM), Saraki said.
"Midwives will be the army to change dire health outcomes, if we invest in them and provide them with skills," said the former lawyer and first lady of Kwara state in western Nigeria.
"I want Nigerian midwives to be able to stand on an equal footing with midwives from around the world," Saraki added.
While Nigeria has started training midwives in life-saving emergency obstetric care in recent years, it still lacks enough midwives or an even distribution across the nation, Saraki said.
The majority of the world's poorer countries, which account for most childbirth-related deaths among newborns and mothers, have a critical shortage of midwives, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and World Health Organisation.
Midwives can provide the majority of the services needed for newborns and pregnant women and women cared for by midwives are less likely to have complicated births or go into labor early.
The Global Midwifery Conference, which runs from May 4 to 5 to mark International Day of the Midwife, is being hosted by the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, UNFPA and the Wellbeing Foundation Africa.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)