Africa, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs, Women's Health

RIGHTS-UGANDA: Government Needs to Prioritise Maternal Health

Wambi Michael

KAMPALA , Jun 15 2011 (IPS) - Just a week after a group of civil society organisations petitioned Uganda’s constitutional court demanding that the government’s non-provision of essential services for pregnant mothers was a violation of the right to life; Margaret Nabirye lost her baby in childbirth.

Rose Nakanjako, the chairperson of Mama Club, a group of women Living with HIV/AIDS said she did not receive proper antenatal care. Credit: Wambi Michael

Rose Nakanjako, the chairperson of Mama Club, a group of women Living with HIV/AIDS said she did not receive proper antenatal care. Credit: Wambi Michael

Nabirye went early to Jinja Regional Referral Hospital expecting a safe delivery. But, she says, amidst labour pains, the nurses on duty insulted her as she sought their assistance.

“I was roughly handled but when I complained, they told me to stop crying saying no one goes to the maternity ward when they are young” she said.

Her husband, Benjamin Schaf a German national who had flown back to Uganda for the birth, said he was disappointed by the health care services at the hospital.

“Coming to hospital is to ensure life is safe but that is not the case in that hospital. We lost our baby because of negligence by the nurses on duty. The only time we got attention from this hospital is after the baby passed on,” Schaf said.

“I just hate the whole thing. I bought everything since the hospital did not have the needed items to facilitate delivery. Now someone tells me if I want a post-mortem I have to give the pathologist transport,” he added in anger.

For many Ugandan mothers, childbirth continues to be dangerous and even deadly – for both mother and child. Uganda is facing a maternal health crisis. Maternal mortality rates have remained high in the last 15 years, with no significant decline. Sixteen women die of pregnancy-related complications every day – an estimated 6,000 women each year.

A group of civil society organisations have now petitioned the Ugandan Constitutional Court demanding a declaration that government’s non-provision of essential services for pregnant mothers and their newborns violates the fundamental obligation of the country to uphold, protect and promote the right to life and health services.

The petitioners; who include women activist groups, health experts, people with living HIV, want the court to force government to compensate all Ugandan families of mothers and children who have died due to negligence and non-provision of basic maternal health care. They have not asked for a specific sum.

The petitioners have also demanded that government adequately equip maternity wards and health facilities with drugs and personnel in order to provide better services.

The petitioners are using the deaths of two mothers, Sylvia Nalubowa and Jennifer Anguko, who both died in childbirth to argue their case. Sylvia Nalubowa died while giving birth to twins in 2009 at a government hospital in central Uganda. Nalubowa was allegedly taken to theatre where there was no medical doctor to attend to her. One of the twins also died.

Geoffrey Kisiga (21), Nalubowa’s son, has joined the coalition for better maternal health. “I lost my mother due (to) negligence and I don’t want that to happen to other mothers. All we are telling our leaders is to allocate more money and staff in hospitals to stop deaths.”

Jennifer Anguko, a local politician in Uganda’s West Nile region, also died due to neglect at a regional referral hospital.

Rose Nakanjako, the chairperson of Mama Club, a group of women Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda told IPS that she also did not receive proper antenatal care. “My first born is HIV positive because I delivered from home. I was always insulted whenever I went for antenatal (services) so I stopped going there,” she said.

Kaitiritimba Robinah, the executive director of Uganda National Health Consumers told IPS that many mothers prefer to deliver from home because of inadequate or poor services offered at government hospitals.

“I don’t think any mother can refuse to deliver from hospital if everything (is) there and free of charge. Most of the mothers refuse to go to hospital because nothing is there. And if medicine is there, it is to be paid for,” she said.

Such cases are commonplace in Uganda’s government hospitals said Lillian Mworeko, an activist with the International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS.

“Health is a right but in this country, you would wonder whether we have any right to health when we have 16 mothers dying per day due neglect by health workers and lack of essential maternal health needs in hospitals,” said Mworeko.

David Kabanda, the petitioners’ lawyer said he was confident that the court will order government to devise and implement, within its available resources, a programme to realise the rights of pregnant women and their newborn children to access health services.

Kabanda told IPS that the government of Uganda has an obligation to allocate funding in priority areas in the health sector.

Richard Nduhura, Uganda’s minister for health told IPS that there are few ambulances in communities to respond to needs of women who need to deliver in hospital.

“I agree that provision of maternal health services has been one of the biggest challenges to our health system. But I think we are addressing that in the next financial year with substantial amount of money allocated to maternal health,” he said.

Maria Kiwanuka, the finance minister in June removed value added tax on the importation of ambulances. She also allocated 24 billion Uganda shillings for maternal health for the coming financial year.

Joachim Saweka, the World Health Organization country representative was happy that the government was finally responding to the call for better funding of maternal health. “I’m very happy became key issues like health, particularly maternal health have in the past not been squarely addressed by government. At least with 24 billion shillings in the budget, maternal health will be addressed.”

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