Global health professor elected to Royal Society of Canada College

Mumtaz's recognition and reinforcement of the College's and Canada's commitment to social justice and reduction of health inequities highlights her unique contribution.

Donna Richardson - 16 October 2019

No woman should die during childbirth. These are the watchwords of global health professor Zubia Mumtaz, recently elected to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

"I do my work not expecting to be recognized, but I am honoured by this recognition," says Mumtaz, an international leader in global maternal and reproductive health.

Zubia MumtazAs a public health physician working in low- and middle-income countries, Mumtaz observed first-hand the complex challenges poor women face in accessing life-saving maternity care. The experience inspired her to pursue her PhD and develop a global maternal health research program in the School of Public Health, the first of its kind at the University of Alberta.

Over the past 15 years, her research program has entailed identifying poor and marginalized women, pinpointing which factors-such as gender and class-are barriers to accessing maternal services and determining how to improve service delivery to them. The focus is on sustainable solutions to provide equitable, high-quality health services to vulnerable women living in remote rural areas of south Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Some describe her research as pioneering. She uses a mixed methods approach-applying quantitative and qualitative methods-in ways considered groundbreaking. For instance, she used social mapping and surveys for a study published in Social Science and Medicine about the role of social geography on the performance of female health workers who provided doorstep health services to village women in Pakistan.

International collaborations are integral to the research. Mumtaz works with partners across the globe, including researchers at the University of Sheffield and London School of Economics (United Kingdom), Columbia University (United States) and the University of Malawi.

Conducting fieldwork in the countries where she works, such as Pakistan and Malawi, brings certain risks. "Her argument for engaging in what some may consider dangerous work is that it is precisely these neglected populations-the invisible and voiceless women-who need the most help," says Duncan Saunders, professor emeritus.

Mumtaz hopes her research provides essential information for decision making by policy makers. She explains that it can take time-sometimes many years-for public health research to result in policy changes. "Things have improved," she says. "Between 1990 and 2015, maternal mortality rates have decreased by 44% globally. Childbirth is safer today, but we still have a long ways to go."

"Addressing inequities is the key," she adds. "This is a global challenge."

Matthias Ruth, University of Alberta vice-president (research and innovation), reinforces the connection between Mumtaz's research and healthy public policies. "She bridges the gulf between the voiceless, poor, socially excluded women in villages, and policy makers and managers in the governments of Pakistan, Malawi, non-governmental organizations and international organizations."

Her innovative research aligns with key health and social trends and will inform and influence the future of global maternal health. It also aligns with the focus of the Royal Society on mobilizing members to make significant contributions of knowledge for the betterment of society.

According to Saunders, "It is Mumtaz's recognition and reinforcement of the Royal College's and Canada's commitment to social justice and reduction of health inequities that highlights her unique contribution."