Empowering women to engage effectively in governance
No Woman Should Die Giving Life, No Man Should Watch Women Die!
When the East African caravan set out for Kampala from Nairobi on July 3rd, 2010,
little did they imagine they would capture the attention of thousands of men
and women across East Africa and elsewhere in Africa. As they travelled the
thousands of kilometres through Arusha, Mwanza, Kigali, Kabale, Masaka, Mbarara
and Kampala, the testimonies they heard in towns, villages, dispensaries and
hospitals has brought urgency to the horrific statistics on maternal mortality.
One in sixteen women and girls die giving birth in Africa. 14% of those who do, die
from unsafe abortions and 60% of these women are under the age of 25 years of
age. Nigeria, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo are among the six
countries that are responsible for 50% of all deaths globally.
Yet, behind the statistics is the horror of Hanna Nasibwa who died on July 13 a few
hours after the caravan arrived at her hospital in Mbarara, Uganda. Her uterus
ruptured during pregnancy but it took her too long to get to the hospital. Too
late, she died. She could have lived if she had been seen sooner.
The twelfth Ordinary Summit of the African Union brought these shocking statistics and experiences into sharp relief. Over 50 Heads of
States came. All but one, are men. 53 Foreign Ministers attended, mostly men.
With them, were a number of Health Ministers. They and their delegations will
spent a week focussing on maternal health, the main theme of the Summit.
Yet, despite the academic statistics, media coverage and statements by our leaders, there is something missing. Anger. Anger is missing.
How is it that Africa can lose mothers, daughters, sisters, and citizens in
this way? Why is there no sense of resolve and anger? Our leaders are
rightfully angry when acting against terrorists and serial killers. Yet, why
can’t we see the same decisiveness when it comes to the issues of maternal
health? If Africa can deploy peace keeping troops to trouble spots (and I think
we should), why can’t we deploy brigades of doctors, midwives and other
health-workers to Africa’s high maternal death hot-spots? Indeed, why isn’t
there a rapid Stand-by Force for health services in Africa? More people die from
5 preventable diseases than war these days.
In 2010, Africa marks ten years of the Abuja Declaration on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and
Malaria and three years of the Maputo Plan for Sexual and Reproductive Rights.
While Governments are spending more on health than they did in the 1990s, it is
still insufficient. Most Governments are far from meeting the 15% AU health
budgeting target. Most spend a tenth of the recommended amount by World Health
Organisation for each of their citizens. Yet, there is a feeling that this
could be a moment to reverse all this.
At this Summit they were hundreds of champions, health specialists and feminists for
women’s rights. On the tables before the Heads of States were important and
well articulated documents for adoption. In the countries from which they come
there are millions of women and girls who are denied the right to health
services, to have control over their fertility and protection from violence and
Yet, all this will go nowhere if we don’t develop a sense of concern and anger among us
men as well. Many years ago, “real men don’t abuse women” was a popular slogan.
While still relevant, perhaps we should adapt it for this moment. It is not
just that real men shouldn’t abuse women; real men should use all the power
they have to eliminate these horrific statistics. Real men should join women in
demanding available, safe and adequate health services.
Why is this particularly an issue for men to think about? Firstly, the women and girls that die every day are not separate from us. They
are our sisters, mothers, daughters and fellow citizens. Secondly, we still
dominate corridors and offices of power across this continent. Until things
change, we must act with the responsibility these offices demand of us all.
Lastly, and most simply, we must think and act because the scale of pain and
suffering is simply unacceptable.
We must urge our Governments to publicly announce the decisions taken this year. We
must declare our intention to assess our Government’s progress ahead of the
next July Summit. Next July, when the caravan called the AU Summit comes to
another town in Africa, we should hold up scorecards against the
recommendations made in this Summit on maternal health. Perhaps we should
demand that our Heads of States drive through 2-3 countries and visit
hospitals, clinics and villages to get to the Summit.
Unless we do this, we are complicit in a double failure. The first failure is the
failure to provide an effective health system that prevents illness and
neglect. The second failure is the failure to safely rescue women and girls
from life-threatening illnesses and unwanted pregnancies. Combined, these two
failures are primary causes for women dying while giving birth. There is a
third cause; too many of us are standing and watching women dying in silence.
It’s now time for this to change as well
Irungu Houghton is the Pan-Africa Director at Oxfam GB in Nairobi
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