Improving motherhood means reducing inequality, not just poverty

The UK is a worse country in which to be a mother than many poorer nations, according to Save the Children.

Photograph: Getty Images

Yesterday’s papers painted a gloomy picture for mums in the UK. According to research by Save the Children, the UK is only the 23rd best country to be a mother, behind Portugal, Greece and a number of other countries suffering economic torpor. If we are to have any chance of improving the lives of mothers in the UK it is crucial to look at the measurements used to determine a mother’s wellbeing, and the drivers behind these?  

The report, which looks at 176 countries, assesses mothers' wellbeing against five indicators: lifetime risk of maternal death, under-five mortality rate, expected number of years of formal schooling, gross national income per capita and the participation of women in national government. 

For those at the bottom of the index it delivers a harrowing account of motherhood in developing countries.  One of the report’s main findings is that “Babies born to mothers living in the greatest poverty face the greatest challenges to survival.” With the bottom 10 countries on the index all residing in sub-Saharan Africa, an area of the world blighted by poverty and poor investment in education and health services, this seems an astute observation. Poverty clearly impacts significantly on the wellbeing of mothers and babies across the globe.

But is poverty the only indicator of wellbeing for mothers? If this is the case, presumably the richest nations are also the best countries to be a mother. Not exactly. The US, the world’s wealthiest nation, is only 30th on the list – below Lithuania and Belarus. By most measures Luxembourg and Qatar are in the top three countries for GDP per capita, but they are just 29th and 58th respectively on the index.

The top spot is instead reserved for Finland, the world’s 41st richest nation. If wealth alone cannot explain positive outcomes for mothers, we must look at other reasons. We know that more unequal countries in the developed world have higher rates of infant mortality, lower scores for child wellbeing and poorer educational performances for children than more equal countries. The top three countries (Finland, Sweden and Norway) on the Mother’s Index are also all in the top 7 OECD countries for income distribution equality.

Reducing poverty is an important measure in lifting the living standards of women and children in the poorest countries. But for those in the richest countries, we must look to reduce income inequality, in addition to raising the incomes of the poorest, to provide better outcomes for all mothers.