BACKGROUND: Modelled mortality estimates have been useful for health programmes in low-income and middle-income countries. However, these estimates are often based on sparse and low-quality data. We aimed to generate high quality data about the burden, timing, and causes of maternal deaths, stillbirths, and neonatal deaths in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. METHODS: In this prospective cohort study done in 11 community-based research sites in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, between July, 2012, and February, 2016, we conducted population-based surveillance of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) to identify pregnancies, which were followed up to birth and 42 days post partum. We used standard operating procedures, data collection instruments, training, and standardisation to harmonise study implementation across sites. Verbal autopsies were done for deaths of all women of reproductive age, neonatal deaths, and stillbirths. Physicians used standardised methods for cause of death assignment. Site-specific rates and proportions were pooled at the regional level using a meta-analysis approach. FINDINGS: We identified 278 186 pregnancies and 263 563 births across the study sites, with outcomes ascertained for 269 630 (96·9%) pregnancies, including 8761 (3·2%) that ended in miscarriage or abortion. Maternal mortality ratios in sub-Saharan Africa (351 per 100 000 livebirths, 95% CI 168-732) were similar to those in south Asia (336 per 100 000 livebirths, 247-458), with far greater variability within sites in sub-Saharan Africa. Stillbirth and neonatal mortality rates were approximately two times higher in sites in south Asia than in sub-Saharan Africa (stillbirths: 35·1 per 1000 births, 95% CI 28·5-43·1 vs 17·1 per 1000 births, 12·5-25·8; neonatal mortality: 43·0 per 1000 livebirths, 39·0-47·3 vs 20·1 per 1000 livebirths, 14·6-27·6). 40-45% of pregnancy-related deaths, stillbirths, and neonatal deaths occurred during labour, delivery, and the 24 h postpartum period in both regions. Obstetric haemorrhage, non-obstetric complications, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, and pregnancy-related infections accounted for more than three-quarters of maternal deaths and stillbirths. The most common causes of neonatal deaths were perinatal asphyxia (40%, 95% CI 39-42, in south Asia; 34%, 32-36, in sub-Saharan Africa) and severe neonatal infections (35%, 34-36, in south Asia; 37%, 34-39 in sub-Saharan Africa), followed by complications of preterm birth (19%, 18-20, in south Asia; 24%, 22-26 in sub-Saharan Africa). INTERPRETATION: These results will contribute to improved global estimates of rates, timing, and causes of maternal and newborn deaths and stillbirths. Our findings imply that programmes in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia need to further intensify their efforts to reduce mortality rates, which continue to be high. The focus on improving the quality of maternal intrapartum care and immediate newborn care must be further enhanced. Efforts to address perinatal asphyxia and newborn infections, as well as preterm birth, are critical to achieving survival goals in the Sustainable Development Goals era. FUNDING: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.