Universal Motherhood: equity and care through Universal Health Coverage

This post is written by Lenio Capsaskis, Health Advocacy Adviser at Save the Children and Samantha Johnson, Senior Manager, Enterprise Issues – Global Corporate Government Affairs and Policy, GSK

Universal motherhood and the case for universal health coverage

Today is Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Day and the Universal Motherhood exhibition – from Save the Children and GSK, and created by Anagram – opens to the public once more. Focusing on the experience of giving birth in five different countries, the exhibition highlights universal aspects of motherhood as well as the stark differences women and newborns in different countries face. It’s a vivid portrayal of how important UHC is for women and children around the world.

UHC: critical for protecting mothers and children

“UHC means that all individuals and communities receive the health services they need without suffering financial hardship,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Maternal, reproductive and child health services are crucial elements of UHC. However, disparities in coverage between and within countries result in increased risks for mothers and newborn babies in low- and middle-income countries, and in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas. According to the Countdown to 2030 report, maternal services, such as giving birth with a skilled attendant present and attending four antenatal visits, often have the worst inequality.

With a focus on providing quality services to as many people as possible without them suffering financial hardship, UHC is a key strategy for achieving equity in healthcare and reaching the most marginalised and vulnerable women and children. The Sustainable Development Goals and the ‘Leave no one behind’ agenda have also placed in-country inequalities front and centre, and achieving UHC by 2030 is a global goal.

Each of the mothers in the Universal Motherhood series gave birth successfully with medical professionals in attendance. But their stories are a moving reminder of how different it could have been if they had been forced to give birth without medically trained support.

Last year 2.5 million mothers lost their newborn babies – that’s 7,000 babies’ deaths every single dayEvery 2 minutes a woman dies because of complications in their pregnancy. In 2016, nearly 31 million women gave birth without a trained birth attendant.

The UK’s role

The UK should be a strong voice in UHC, so that mothers and children around the world have access to quality services.

Ellen, who gave birth in the UK, is featured in the Universal Motherhood exhibition. At birth, her baby, Alice, was not breathing. Emergency teams were called in to assist the midwives. They resuscitated Alice after six minutes. Doctors then performed tests to check that Alice hadn’t suffered any damage through lack of oxygen.

Thankfully, the doctors found Alice was fine. But her story reminds us of the importance the UK places on universal health coverage for women and children, on the principle that healthcare should be “available to everyone irrespective of their ability to pay”.

The UK’s commitment to UHC at home establishes it as an important actor in advocating for and supporting UHC globally. The UK government has already shown its support for strengthening health systems to promote the health and nutrition of women and children by committing £50 million to the World Bank’s Global Financing Facility (GFF) in November this year. At the centre of this commitment was a push for more sustainable change to the way health systems are financed and supported in various countries. This included calls for increased domestic resources for health and the involvement of the private sector to reduce out-of-pocket costs to patients and to improve access to quality health services for the poorest. A recent Save the Children report – Tick Tax: Why taxation is critical to the GFF’s success – highlights the importance of the GFF engaging with wide-ranging tax reform to generate sustainable domestic resources for health and nutrition systems.

The UK should continue to position itself as a leader in UHC, including in sustainable health system financing and equitable access to healthcare. The UK government can ensure that countries make measurable improvements towards UHC goals and ensure that international donor aid, similarly to the GFF, is focused on promoting and supporting long-term domestic planning and financing for strong health systems.

The opportunity for global progress on UHC

The current global movement and focus on UHC provides an opportunity to bridge the inequality gap between and within countries.

In advance of the United Nations High Level Meeting on UHC coming up in 2019, there is a need for strong country and global commitments to UHC and the development of relevant national plans and road-maps to drive progress.

With strong global and national leadership, a focus on equity, collaboration across sectors and prominence in a transformative aid agenda, UHC can be achieved – and mean that the ability to pay should never act as a barrier to good health for women and children.


Universal Motherhood: A journey through the lottery of birth is open from 12 December 2018 to 19 January 2019, Tuesdays to Saturdays; closed 23 December–1 January.

Opening hours: 12 noon–5pm; late opening 13, 14, 19 and 20 December until 7pm

One Paved Court, 1 Paved Court, Richmond TW9 1LZ

Read more about the mothers who feature in the exhibition.


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