FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
WEDNESDAY 19TH AUGUST 2020
JUDICIAL ENDORSEMENT OF MATERNAL HEALTH RIGHTS IN UGANDA
Kampala – Uganda. Today, Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD), Prof. Ben Twinomugisha, Rhoda Kukiriza and Inziku Valente with joy welcome the long awaited judgement from the Constitutional Court of Uganda in the case of CEHURD, Prof. Ben Twinomugisha, Rhoda Kukiriza and Inziku Valente vs. Attorney General [Constitutional Petition No. 16 of 2011]. The Constitutional Court agreed with our submissions and all judges accepted all the grounds of the petition. Through this judgement, the right to maternal health care (and the right to health broadly) has been granted a place in Uganda’s Constitution. The judgment recognizes basic maternal health care services and emergency obstetric care.
This suit, filed in 2011, sought to challenge Government’s omission to adequately provide basic maternal health services and commodities in public health facilities as contravening the right to health, rights of women, right to life and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The suit is premised on the wrongful deaths of the late Anguko Jennifer who died on 10th December 2010 in Arua Referral Hospital and the late Sylvia Nalubowa who died on 19th August 2010 in Mityana District Hospital. Both women died during child birth when they needed caesarean sections but failed to access the commodities and human resource required to obtain the same.
Today a panel of 5 (five) judges from the Constitutional Court of Uganda including Mr. Justice Alfonse Owiny Dollo DCJ, Mr. Justice Kenneth Kakuru JCC, Mr. Justice F.M.S Egonda Ntende JCC, Mr. Justice Barishaki Cheborion JCC and Mr. Justice Christopher Madrama JCC have upheld the maternal health rights of women and went ahead to declare and order that;
- The Government’s omission to adequately provide basic maternal health care services and emergency obstetric care in public health facilities violates the right to health, the rights of women, the right to life and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
- The Government should in the next financial year prioritize and provide sufficient funds in the national budget for maternal health care.
- The Ministry of health are directed to ensure that all staff who provide maternal health care services in Uganda are fully trained and all health centers are equipped within the next 2 financial years (2020/2021 and 2021/2022)
- The Ministry of Health is directed to compile and submit to Parliament, with a copy to Court a full audit report on the status of Maternal health in Uganda at the end of each of the next 2 financial years (2020/2021 and 2021/2022)
- Rhoda Kukiriza and Inziku Valente are awarded 155,000,000/= each as general and exemplary damages for the psychological torture, loss suffered and violation of rights
In his lead judgement Mr. Justice Barishaki Cheborion JCC found that “I have no doubt that the government has made attempts to address the omissions by putting in place policies, programs as reflected in the respondents submissions however for the right to maternal health to be realised, subsequent implementation of all the above mentioned policies and programs, their extension and evaluation has to be done which to a large extent has not been the case. Adverse effects on maternal health impact negatively on society’s wellbeing”
He also found that “The deaths of Ms Anguko Jennifer at Arua Regional Referral Hospital and Ms Sylvia Nalubowa at Mityana District Hospital were a result of non-availability of basic maternal health services and negligence of Health Workers. The actions caused utmost pain, degrading and cruel treatment of the deceased for the period they spent in the said hospitals fighting for their lives with no hope of survival until they died. This also caused untold suffering and loss to their families”
He also found that “Women suffer a lot due to shortages or short comings in the delivery of maternal health care services caused by stock-outs of maternal health care packages, drugs, professional negligence. Limited budgetary provisions to the health sector all of which deprive them of opportunity to safely deliver babies. Preventable deaths of pregnant women at Government hospitals deprive Women of the right to enjoy and realize their sexual reproductive rights”
We appreciate the judiciary for protecting, promoting and fulfilling the rights of women especially concerning their maternal function, indeed the power of the judicial pen has come to light in this case. Thank You
For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org and copy in email@example.com or call 0788-882809.
The Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) convenes the Annual National Inter-University Constitutional Law Moot Court Competitions. Since 2014, the moot court competition has seen more than ten (10) law schools in Uganda participate. The moot court competition is geared towards inculcating a better understanding of the Justiciability of the Right to Health and other human rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995 and recognized in several international instruments.
It also aims at aiding law students to improve their public speaking skills and give them an experience of the litigation process in Uganda. The CEHURD moot has built a cohort of young lawyers who appreciate the right to health and its Justiciability within the confines of Uganda’s legal system.
By Faith Nabunya
“My wife was left unattended in the postnatal ward for close to five hours until I paid Shs205,000 to have blood brought to Kibuli Musilm Hospital for her diffusion. Without any medical records, they told me to take my wife to either Mulago hospital ICU if I still needed her alive. For the three days I was in Kibuli hospital, I never got anyone to explain the state of my wife even during transfer to Case hospital. I was never given her medical records. It’s only at Case Hospital that I was told that my wife is anaemic due to over bleeding and she had suffered from liver damage. Justice should be served for my wife and it should be a lesson that all women deserve good health care,” Mr Rafaile Omony shares what happened to his now deceased wife.
On July 2nd, 2020, The Center for Health, Human Rights and Development filed a complaint with the Uganda Medical and Dental Practitioners’ Council (UMDPC) against Kibuli Muslim Hospital, challenging the violation of medical professional ethics, and human rights of Mr Omony. Omony’s wife, Scovia Mary Alupo, died on October 27th, 2018 after undergoing a cesarean section, following which she bled to death.
Uganda suffers a persistently high maternal mortality ratio (MMR) currently at 336 per 100,000 live births which translates into 16 women dying every day during childbirth majorly because of lack of basic maternal health commodities like gloves, syringes, blood, medicines etc, which enable women to give birth safely. This is worsened by low political will to equip and sufficiently fund healthcare facilities, which sees two midwives working in more that 30 expectant mothers at a go.
“Women die everyday due to severe bleeding while giving birth. Blood is an essential life saving commodity that can’t be replaced and so should be freely given to those who critically need it. Health facilities should be held accountable for any life lost due to failure to pay for blood. This is unacceptable and we need UMDPC to exercise its mandate of general supervision and disciplinary control over medical practice to uphold health and human rights”, Ms Edith Sifuna shares.
Dr. Katumba Ssentongo, the Registrar at UMDPC says that their role as UMDPC is to supervise and exercise discipline action to all dental and medical practice in Uganda. In two (2) weeks time after reviewing the complaint (CEHURD & Omony), Kibuli hospital will be notified through an official letter from the council to get their defence.
Ms Alupo has become one of these tragic statistics and we cannot leave her death unaccounted for. CEHURD has therefore petitioned UMDPC seeking that Kibuli Hospital and the concerned health care workers be investigated and found culpable for the professional misconduct exhibited. CEHURD equally intends to bring these human rights violations to the attention of the courts of judicature, seeking compensation for the family of Ms Alupo. “ We want UMDPC to take action against its members that violate the medical profession ethics fulfilling their mandate of monitoring and regulating the practice of medicine and dentistry as per the Uganda medical and dental practitioners’ Act” Ms Ruth Ajalo, a lawyer representing CEHURD adds.
The writer is a Communications Officer at Center for Health, Human Rights and Development.
By Edith Sifuna
Sophia (not real name) could not easily access transport to the nearby health centre for maternal services. She therefore resorted to seeking the services of a traditional birth attendant (TBA) in a neighbouring village. She could not trek the long distance to deliver her child since she had gone into labour late in the night while she was home alone. An elderly TBA was her only option to deliver the baby. Unfortunately, Sophia suffered from obstructed labour and by the time she accessed a boda boda to get to the health care facility, she had lost her baby and had passed out. The midwife on duty could only give her first aid as they waited for an ambulance from the nearby private hospital to take her for further treatment.
With the global outbreak of COVID-19, Uganda took steps to curb the spread of the virus. Some of these steps included the Presidential directives that put restrictions on movement. These restrictions included a ban on public and private transport, except for essential services. Sophia is one of the many expectant women in Uganda who have been reported to resort to TBAs to give birth from villages due to these restrictions. Women have lost their lives while giving birth, lost their babies and or left the labour ward with complications and other psycho-social effects. COVID-19 like many other pandemics attacked Uganda unprepared more so because of the need to strike a balance between control of the pandemic and provision of essential health services where maternal and child health have been at the peak.
Uganda’s maternal mortality ratio stands at 336 deaths per 100,000 live births according to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2016, with an average of 16 women dying daily while giving birth due to preventable causes. This figure is less likely to reduce to the projected indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Even if the State worked hard to achieve the set indicators, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic already show a failure to achieve them. As part of ensuring that this pandemic is suppressed, the President of the Republic of Uganda working with the COVID-19 task force in the Ministry of Health provided directives to the country that were welcomed at the time. The country was in fear and everyone thought that these were indeed great directives. Reality, however, set in when expectant mothers continued to die and others delivered by the roadside or at the entrance of facilities due to movement restrictions.
The restriction on movement affected both women due for delivery and those due for antenatal care (ANC) visits. The World Health Organisation Guidelines (WHO), set at least eight antenatal care visits from the initial four as a measure for monitoring the well being of the expectant mother and the unborn
baby. These are unfortunately not possible for most expectant women due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
Many expectant women have instead been reported to have faced police brutalities while trying to access the health facilities. For example a video recording circulated on May 8th, 2020 showing a Local Defence Unit (LDU) officer shooting a boda boda rider and an expectant woman who were on their way to the hospital in Masaka. Both were reported dead. This happened despite the President relaxing restrictions on the movement of pregnant women on boda bodas.
Women have also failed to access necessary health care due to the economic breakdown brought about by COVID. Many have lost jobs and cannot earn a living. Additionally, movement restrictions especially in regard to public transport have caused a hike in transport fares, which many find too high to enable them access services. The current curfew which stops movement at 7pm has not made things easier.
These conditions, among others, have left expectant women with few options. The TBAs became the silent saviours of women’s lives. These were willing and ready to accord the much needed timely support for the expectant mothers in their communities for a number of reasons. First, they live within the communities and are therefore not affected by the movement restrictions. Secondly, the support and care TBAs accord women while they are in labour is sometimes not equivalent to the one provided in health facilities because the numbers attended to at a time is smaller.
It should be noted that in 2010, the Government of Uganda outlawed TBAs. They were banned from conducting deliveries as they lack formal training to handle emergency cases such as C-Sections and haemorrhage. Haemorrhage contributes to 46 per cent of maternal mortality among women according to the 2018/2018 Maternal Perinatal Death Survey Report (MPDSR). Despite the ban, the traditional birth attendants are still very active, providing maternity care during and after pregnancy, especially in rural communities. Expectant mothers’ preference to traditional birth attendants’ services has risen even higher during the COVID-19 period. Beyond proximity, the current socio-economic and mobility challenges have seen women run to TBAs even more. Unfortunately, the delivery places and services are of very poor quality and usually take place under unhygienic conditions with no referral systems.
Most TBAs in villages are old and have no training to offer timely technical assistance to expectant mothers but because they command a lot of respect, most people respect them and have resorted to their services.
The outbreak of the pandemic saw the designation of some facilities to handle COVID-19 cases. This meant that attention to general sexual and reproductive health and rights services including maternal health services was minimised. Managing COVID-19 remains Uganda’s priority. Furthermore, there are myths and misconceptions about the behaviour of healthcare providers as being harsh and rude, although they have been found to be this way, especially towards expectant mothers. On the other hand, TBAs are perceived as approachable, friendly and are known to deal well with financially constrained mothers as they sometimes go to the extent of giving them tea and food in addition to some herbal concoctions. These factors therefore make TBAs more attractive to expectant women in the communities. However, the services of TBAs have been known to increase maternal mortality, mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS (MTCT) and postpartum haemorrhage. These indicators are expected to worsen if mothers continue giving birth with the assistance of TBAs who are not equipped to handle such emergencies and cannot easily refer the women to health facilities where they can be skillfully helped.
The presidential directives were put in place to protect Ugandans from COVID-19 and curb its spread in communities. However, the country has registered more maternal deaths than COVID-19 ones, which still stand at zero, due to the inability to access transport to health facilities. As CEHURD, we therefore recommend that the Ministry of Health strengthens the Public- Private Partnership (PPP) in this era to extend quality, accessible and affordable health services to all places in the country but more so to rural communities.
This can be done through working with different civil society organisations and other private actors to provide services and information to the masses. These collaborations are also an avenue to advocate for better service delivery and accountability. They also contribute to strengthening the local community structures such as Village Health Teams (VHTs), Health Unit Management Committees (HUMCs), and Community Health Advocates (CHAs).
VHTs if extensively trained and given the skills training, can take record of all expectant mothers in their constituencies and constantly monitor them till delivery time. They can further support them to access health facilities for ANC and child delivery, not forgetting social distancing and personal protection with protective gear, constant hand washing and use of alcohol-based sanitisers. They can also offer health education to their constituencies.
HUMCs can be further strengthened to continuously update the communities about the available services at facilities and encourage them to go for health care. They can further monitor the activities of the health workers and quality of services. However, health workers should be equipped with the adequate personal protective gear such as emergency drugs, gloves, masks and disinfectants, among others as they are also working in fear of their safety while dealing with different categories of people from diverse locations.
Lastly, Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) has trained a team of Community Health Advocates (CHAs) who are advocating for the realisation of right to health within communities. They also report cases such as Sophia’s. CHAs can sensitise communities about their rights and responsibilities amid COVID-19, record and report health rights violations and refer those who may need legal aid to CEHURD through the toll free line – 0800 31 3131. All this should be done in respect to MOH guidelines.
The right to health is inherent and ought to be protected especially the lives of mothers and their newborn babies. Health workers should be supported to save lives and mothers taken good care of while bringing life to earth. Despite the pandemic, reproductive and maternal functions are ongoing, even escalated by the lock down, characterised by high sexual engagement both consensual and non-consensual. COVID-19 is a big public health threat but not worse than maternal deaths, this is evidenced by the fact that mothers and babies have been and are continuing to be lost due to effects of the lock down. Under these circumstances, isn’t it time for the country to re-think its restrictions and prioritise access to quality maternal and child health services? It’s unacceptable for women to die at the hands of traditional birth attendants and COVID-19 should be a learning opportunity for the Ugandan government. At the moment, Uganda is exposed and we need to work harder to ensure that women’s lives are protected and not lose another woman due to preventable child-birth related complications.
For God and my Country.
The writer is a programme officer at Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD).
A version of this article was originally published in the Daily Monitor on 11th July 2020.