Best Country To Be a Mother: Finland

Oct 20, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in June 2013]

Among the world’s many social development indices is the 2013 Mothers’ Index recently published by the Save the Children charity. The index is a composite of five factors: maternal health (measured as lifetime risk of maternal death), children’s well-being (measured as under-5 mortality rate), and women’s educational, economic, and political status. The latter three components involve such criteria as “expected number of years of formal schooling”, “gross national income per capita”, and “participation of women in national governments” (specifically, the percentage of national legislative seats held by women). It is, however, questionable whether these measures are true reflections of the selected factors. Moreover, the data for the various components comes from different years, ranging from 2010 (maternal health) to 2013 (political status).


The map I have made (see on the left) shows the ranking broken down into four equal tiers (44 countries in each; the similar way of presenting the data is used by the authors of the 2011 Index, which ranks slightly fewer countries). The overall pattern is the expected one: most industrialized countries in Europe and North America, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Japan cluster tightly at the top of the index; Russia and several of the former Soviet Republics, as well as China and most Latin American and Middle Eastern nations form the second tier; South Asia lags behind Southeast Asia and the Pacific; and the majority of sub-Saharan countries occupy the bottom of the ranking. As is expected, the top of the ranking is occupied by three Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden, and Norway; Iceland and Denmark are also among the top 6. The bottom of the list is likewise occupied by “the usual suspects”: Sierra Leone (174th), Somalia (175th), and Democratic Republic of Congo (176th).


The changes from the 2011 Index are particularly instructive (only changes between tiers, rather than changes in absolute ranking, are considered here). The situation for mothers worsened in a number of Eastern European countries, including Russia, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia, Albania, which moved from the top tier to the second tier. The placement of Ukraine is probably related to its relatively low women’s and children’s mortality indicators, as well as to the weak participation of women in Ukrainian politics. Russia’s decline on this index underscores the low success rate of the government’s strongly pro-natalist stance and “family values” propaganda, designed to help solve Russia’s demographic problems. As noted in my earlier post, Russia continues to lag behind its neighbors, Belarus and Ukraine, in decreasing in the number of abortions. A similar downward trend obtains in some of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia), as well as in some Central American countries (Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Panama, Bolivia, Paraguay)—all of which moved down from the second into third tier. Likewise, several sub-Saharan African states which were already low on the ranking—Ghana,  Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cameroon, Congo, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire—continued to slide down, as did India, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea; these countries now find themselves in the fourth rather than third tier.

Yet the opposite, upward trend is observed in other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia: Lesotho, Uganda, Senegal, Angola, Bhutan, Nepal, and Cambodia, all of which managed to pull out from the bottom tier. A number of Middle Eastern and North African countries likewise improved the conditions for mothers: Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Oman moved up from the third tier into the second (as did Belize and El Salvador in Central America). Seven nations worldwide jumped into the top tier: Argentina, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Cuba, Cyprus, Israel, and South Korea.

Of these seven countries, Israel registered the largest relative improvement, climbing twenty places to reach the 25th spot. An Israeli woman is half as likely as her American counterpart to die from pregnancy-related causes: the lifetime risk of maternal death in Israel is one in 5,100 mothers. The under-5 mortality in Israel clocks at 4.3 per 1,000 live births, comparable to the figures of Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland. Mothers in Israel have an average of 15.7 years of schooling, comparable to Austria, Switzerland, or the Czech Republic, and a gross income of $28,930, comparable to the Netherlands or Spain (and nearly three times higher than Russia).

maternity leave map

The United States ranks merely 30th in the Mothers’ Index, bested by such countries as France (16th) and Italy (17th), Canada (22nd) and United Kingdom (23rd), Israel (25th) and Belarus (26th). The relatively low ranking of the U.S. is based on several factors. One of the key indicators used to calculate the index is lifetime risk of maternal mortality. The maternal mortality in the United States is the highest of any industrialized nation: a woman in the U.S. is more than 10 times as likely as a woman in Italy or Ireland to die from pregnancy-related causes. The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy of any wealthy nation, both in terms of duration and percent of wages paid (except Australia, see the map on the left). Similarly, the U.S. does not do as well as most other developed countries with regard to child mortality. The U.S. under-5 mortality rate is on par with the figure of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Forty-one countries performed better than the U.S. on this indicator. A child in the U.S. is three times more likely to die before reaching age 5 than a child in Iceland, and twice as likely as a child in Denmark. Only slightly more than half of children in the United States are enrolled in preschool—making it the fifth lowest country in the developed world on this indicator. The United States also lags behind in regard to the political status of women: only 18% of its congressional seats are held by women, compared to 45% in Sweden and 40% in Iceland. Whether legislative representation accurately reflects the position of women in society is dubious, however, in light of such figures as 45% in Cuba, 39% in Mozambique, 31% in Guyana, 26% in El Salvador or Ethiopia, or 25% in Iraq.

Another cautionary note concerns this and many similar indices: the conditions of different geographic, ethnic, or religious sub-groups in a country may vary greatly from the national average. Remote rural areas tend to have fewer services for mothers and children and more dire statistics. War, violence and lawlessness obviously do great harm to the well-being of mothers and children, and often affect certain segments of the population disproportionately. Broad national-level data such as those used for this index hide such crucial discrepancies.

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