Why giving birth makes us equal

Several months ago, I had an emergency Caesarean. It was close to midnight. I was lying down at the hospital, half conscious from the contractions. My midwife had been listening regularly to the heartbeat of the baby in my belly, but this time she was not happy with what she heard. Within minutes, I was rushed to the operating theatre. As this was happening, my entire body started to tremble uncontrollably, as if I was being pulled out of an icy river. I couldn’t stop shaking. The horrible cocktail of anxiety and pain exploded into something I had never experienced before – the feeling of extreme vulnerability.

Whatever we do and wherever we live, we will at some point need helping hands to take us out of an icy river

A baby doing stretches in a crib.
© UNICEF/MiltchevaThe author’s daughter Milena Miltcheva Sallet.

While my entire identity was dissolving into this feeling, a pair of hands gently rested on my head and I heard somebody saying, “Your baby is safe. You are safe. Everything will be OK.” These hands belonged to one of the health workers in the operating room. The surgery was over. Somewhere in my foggy brain, I suddenly realized that in other parts of the world, this emergency delivery could have been fatal, for both me and my baby.

As it happens, in the past two years, all my work for UNICEF has focused on advocating for access to quality care for every mother and baby. The UNICEF Every Child ALIVE campaign brought me to sub-Saharan Africa, where a woman faces a 1 in 37 risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth. I have seen deliveries in challenging circumstances and was moved by the pain of mums who had lost their newborns just because the hospital was out of reach or basic medical equipment was lacking. I used to believe that I understood the reality behind the staggering annual global death toll of 2.8 million pregnant women and newborns. The truth is, I only really understood what they had experienced during the birth of my own baby, when I faced my own vulnerability.


There are moments in life when we all have felt or will feel vulnerable. This is an immutable law of human nature, and thus, we are all equal in our vulnerability. Whatever we do and wherever we live, we will at some point need helping hands to take us out of an icy river. Yet, today, access to quality care, to these safe hands, is extremely unequal. This should not be the case.

The truth is, my vulnerable experience ended well because I gave birth in a modern, well-equipped facility. The medical team not only dealt efficiently with the emergency, but also followed swiftly with all the UNICEF standards for a ‘baby-friendly’ hospital, from the first skin-to-skin contact with the dad to breastfeeding within an hour after birth.

A lady with a baby strapped to her front.
© UNICEF/Miltcheva The author Olga Miltcheva with her newborn baby.

I reflected further on how privileged I was when, a couple of hours later, the most beautiful little girl in the world was peacefully sleeping next to me. The morning light was just peeking through the window and I could not take my eyes off this miracle baby, overwhelmed by an immense feeling of gratitude. In that moment, I felt connected to all mums everywhere in the world, and I wished they all could have the same opportunities for quality support and care as I did.

Mothers are so similar when they face vulnerability. We are so alike when we meet our babies for the first time. But how we are supported in these moments of vulnerability varies greatly and this is unacceptable. Every mother and baby have the right to quality, affordable care provided by a safe pair of hands. Every mother should have the chance to hear the words, “Your baby is safe. You are safe. Everything will be OK.”


Download the 2019 report on Levels and Trends in Child Mortality.

Olga Miltcheva is campaign manager of the UNICEF Every Child ALIVE campaign.

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