Background Stillbirth rate is an important indicator of access to and quality of antenatal and delivery care. Obtaining overall estimates across various regions of the world is not straightforward due to variation in definitions, data collection methods and reporting. Methods We conducted a systematic review of a range of pregnancy-related conditions including stillbirths and performed meta-analysis of the subset of studies reporting stillbirth rates. We examined variation across rates and used meta-regression techniques to explain observed variation. Results We identified 389 articles on stillbirth prevalence among the 2580 included in the systematic review. We included 70 providing 80 data sets from 50 countries in the meta-analysis. Pooled prevalence rates show variation across various subgroup categories. Rates per 100 births are higher in studies conducted in less developed country settings as compared to more developed (1.17 versus 0.50), of inadequate quality as compared to adequate (1.12 versus 0.66), using sub-national sample as compared to national (1.38 versus 0.68), reporting all stillbirths as compared to late stillbirths (0.95 versus 0.63), published in non-English as compared to English (0.91 versus 0.59) and as journal articles as compared to non-journal (1.37 versus 0.67). The results of the meta-regression show the significance of two predictor variables – development status of the setting and study quality – on stillbirth prevalence. Conclusion Stillbirth prevalence at the community level is typically less than 1% in more developed parts of the world and could exceed 3% in less developed regions. Regular reviews of stillbirth rates in appropriately designed and reported studies are useful in monitoring the adequacy of care. Systematic reviews of prevalence studies are helpful in explaining sources of variation across rates. Exploring these methodological issues will lead to improved standards for assessing the burden of reproductive ill-health.