Quotas for women in parliament led to a sharp decline in deaths at childbirth for all women

A new study by Professor Sonia Bhalotra and co-authors has found that raising women’s political participation has a dramatic and suprising effect on women’s empowerment – fewer women die within 42 days of childbirth.

The study found that the introduction of quotas for women in parliament results in a 9–12 per cent decline in maternal mortality. Countries with a quota for parliamentary participations also saw 8
–11 per cent increase in skilled birth attendance and a 6–11 per cent increase in women attending prenatal checks.

Maternal mortality, defined as the death of women within 42 days of childbirth, remains a looming
global health problem well into the twenty-first century. It is estimated to account for 830 deaths per
day, and more than 216 deaths per 100,000 live births globally. Maternal
mortality is only the tip of the iceberg, the mass of which is maternal morbidity. In sub-Saharan Africa,
the maternal mortality ratio exceeds the rate in developed countries a century ago.

Although maternal mortality has declined rapidly in the last two decades, it was
a late start, and there was massive variation in rates of decline.

The new study looks at the hypothesis that political will plays a significant role, and that women have greater political will for
maternal mortality reduction. Since 1990, not only has the maternal mortality rate has fallen by 44 per cent, but the share of
women in parliament has risen from under 10 per cent to more than 20 per cent. The researchers find these these trends are causally related

The paper, published by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research provides new evidence for policy makers worldwide looking to reduce maternal mortality rates.

Professor Bhalotra said: “The new evidence we
provide, documenting that women’s involvement in policy-making can effect more rapid maternal mortality decline has implications for the recently launched Global Health 2035 report, and the United Nations’ ambitious
Sustainable Development Goals. The target is more ambitious than ever, so we clearly need some policy innovation.

In fact this paper shows that the goal for reducing maternal
mortality is complementary to the goal for raising the share of women in parliament.

Given recent evidence from analysis of close elections in India which shows that replacing men legislators with women
legislators would incur no cost in terms of compromised economic growth, gender
quotas may be both a powerful and low-cost means to modifying public health priorities and improving
maternal health. Despite significant progress, especially since 2000, preventable maternal mortality remains high.

The lifetime risk of maternal mortality is 1 in 41 women in low-income countries. Despite
a wave of gender quota implementation, 130 countries in the world have none.”

Read the paper Maternal mortality and women’s political participation by Professor Sonia Bhalotra, Professor Damian Clarke, Dr Joseph Gomes and Dr Atheendar Venkataramani

Professor Bhalotra will be the keynote speaker presenting this study at the 2018 Nordic conference on development economics
in Helsinki, Finland, 11-12 June 2018


Latest findings, new research

Publications search

Search all research by subject and author


Researchers discuss their findings and what they mean for society


Background and context, methods and data, aims and outputs


Conferences, seminars and workshops

Survey methodology

Specialist research, practice and study

Taking the long view

ISER's annual report


Key research themes and areas of interest