• The world faces a shortage of 900,000 midwives, a new report says.
  • Fully investing in midwives by 2035 would save 4.3 million lives per year.
  • As well as attending births, midwives provide a range of antenatal and postnatal care.
  • Women account for 93% of midwives and 89% of nurses.
  • Gender inequality is among the drivers of this midwife shortage..

An acute shortage of midwives is leading to a “terrible toll” in the form of preventable deaths, according to a new report.

Across the globe, 900,000 midwives are needed by 2035 to save an estimated 4.3 million lives a year, The State of the World’s Midwifery 2021 report finds.

Produced by partners including the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency – the World Health Organization and the International Confederation of Midwives, the report evaluates the midwifery workforce and related health resources in 194 countries.

image of two midwives caring for a patient in the maternity ward of Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia
Two midwives care for a patient in the maternity ward of Banadir hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia..
Image: Tobin Jones / World Health Organization

The impact of midwives

The identified shortfall represents a third of the required global midwifery workforce, the report finds. They are needed mostly in low-income countries and in Africa. Fully investing in midwives by 2035 would avert roughly two-thirds (67%) of maternal deaths, 64% of newborn deaths and 65% of stillbirths.

“The State of the World’s Midwifery report sounds the alarm that currently the world urgently needs 1.1 million more essential health workers to deliver sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn and adolescent health care, and 80% of these missing essential health workers are midwives,” says UNFPA executive director Dr Natalia Kanem.

“A capable, well-trained midwife can have an enormous impact on childbearing women and their families – an impact often passed on from one generation to the next.”

an infographic showing the state of the world's midwifery, 2021
Investments in midwives is urgently needed.
Image: The State of the World’s Midwifery 2021

The role of gender inequality

The COVID-19 crisis has worsened the problem, the partners warn, with the health needs of women and newborns being overshadowed, midwifery services being disrupted and midwives being deployed to other health services.

Gender inequality is a key, but unacknowledged, driver in this massive shortage.

“The continued under-resourcing of the midwifery workforce is a symptom of health systems not prioritizing the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls, and not recognizing the role of midwives – most of whom are women – to meet these needs,” the partners say.

Women account for 93% of midwives and 89% of nurses. As well as attending births, midwives provide antenatal and postnatal care and a range of sexual and reproductive health services. This includes family planning, detecting and treating sexually transmitted infections and sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents.

The report calls on governments to prioritize funding and support for midwifery and take concrete steps to include midwives in determining health policies.

The global gender gap

Similar gender inequality themes emerge in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, which analyzes gender gaps across 156 countries.

It finds that COVID-19 has lengthened women’s global journey to equality by a generation, from almost 100 years to 136 years.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

“There are still too many parts of the world where the fundamentals like health and education still have massive gender gaps,” says Forum managing director Saadia Zahidi.