By Juan L. Mercado

“CAN WE get out of this house soon — please?” That antsy plea came from our then five-year old daughter.  With other visitors, we stood inside the Taj Mahal.  But like other kids, she preferred to romp in the Taj gardens, glistening in the Agra winter sunlight.

Following Empress Mumtaz Mahal’s death, Emperor Shah Jahan built this gleaming mausoleum for her over 17 years (1631 to 1648). The result is “the jewel of Muslim art in India.”

“See Taj Mahal at full moon,” urges tourist brochures. But even at high noon, this domed grave and spires take one’s breath away. The Taj adorns journals, family albums, even tacky postcards. Unesco named Taj as a “world heritage site” in 1983.

A wall inscription hints at the grief that shattered the Emperor. “Should the guilty seek asylum here? Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin…,” it says. “In this world, this edifice has been made to display thereby the Creator’s glory.”

The Taj commands instant recognition. But “few are aware of the tragedy that inspired its creation,” writes Queen Raina Al Abdullah of Jordan.  Empress Mumtaz Mahal died in child birth four centuries ago. “A woman still dies from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth every minute of every day today.”

Born in Kuwait, commoner Raina’s father was a physician. She graduated with a computer science degree from American University in Cairo. She married Prince Hussien who ascended to the throne. Today, 38-year old Queen Raina devotes time to charities and serves as Unicef’s “Eminent Advocate for Children.”

Eleven Filipina mothers die everyday. About 4,500 succumb yearly to preventable causes:  hemorrhage, hypertension, infection. Abortion is often as a bloody substitute for hard-to-come-by family planning.

The maternal death toll worldwide is more than 536,000 women each year. “State of the World’s Children 2009” notes. That comes to roughly 10 million per generation – equal to more than two Singapores.

“Women bear and raise the new generation,” Queen Raina points out.” They are critical actors as workers, leaders and activists. When women’s lives are cut short or incapacitated as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, the tragedy cascades. Children lose a parent. Spouses lose a partner.  And societies lose positive contributors.”

“There are only two families in this world,” author Miguel de Cervantes once noted. “The haves and the have-nots.” This fault line is most tragic in maternal and infant deaths.

Women in least developed countries, like Mali, are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth than women those in well-off Norway. Yet, most research focuses “on incremental advances in highly technical care for 2 percent of deaths in advanced nations.

Along with collapsing Zimbabwe, the Philippines shares a dubious distinction with 68 other countries: we contribute nine out of ten maternal, neonatal and child health deaths worldwide.

The wife and I have a Swedish daughter-in-law.  We showed her the Unicef report that reveals the lifetime risk of maternal death for Filipinas is 1 in 140. For Swedes, it is 1in to 17,400 life time risk. Her blue-grey eyes widened.

“Across the human life span, an individual faces the greatest risk of mortality during birth and the first 28 days of life. About half of Filipino children’s death occurs within this narrow deadly window. Worldwide, the toll is about 10,000 a day. “Most of these deaths occur at home and are unrecorded,” Unicef notes. “They remain invisible to all but their families.”

Under five mortality rates (U5MR) pegs chances for a kid keeling over before his fifth birthday. Survival beyond five hinges on “which part of a country are they born. And to what type of household.”

“Children least likely to survive are those in the poorest households,” says an Asian Development Bank and UN study. “The poorest 20 typically accounts for considerably more than 20 percent “

The World Bank estimates that basic interventions, like attendance of skilled health personnel, could avert three out of four maternal deaths, Queen Raina points out. So, why are we still failing to safeguard women as they perpetuate the human race itself?

“Public health has indeed made breath-taking strides,” she answers. “But these benefits have not been equally shared.” The skewed patterns persist between countries or geographic regions.

This is also true between well-off urban enclaves and tail-enders. A child born in dirt-poor Tawi-Tawi is almost five times or more likely to die, during the first month of life than a child born in Manila.

There has been heartening headway in improving Philippine child survival rates. Infant mortality here has been whittled down from 57 for every 1,000 births to 23. Under-five deaths were a gross 80 in 1990. This dropped to 31 in 2006.

But this country will sell its mothers short yet again. We’ll probably fall short of meeting, the Millennium Development Goal No 5: To slash, by three-fourths the number of maternal deaths come 2015.

Other countries, like Malaysia, are well on the way to meeting this target. But we’re bogged down in cascading idiocy. Can an ex-convict, like Jose Velarde, run for president? We fret. “May 200 ka diyan Sec “Funds needed by health programs bankroll Joc-Joc Bolante’s fertilizer scam.

“Changing the trajectory for girls can change the course of the future,” Queen Raina stressed. And when these girl become mothers, they will view pregnancy and childbirth as something to celebrate, not fear.