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The families of two women who died following obstructed labour begin an historic legal action today, in a bid to force the Ugandan government to tackle the shortages of doctors and midwives, drug stock-outs and absence of emergency transport that kill 16 women a day
The families of two women who died in childbirth are starting a legal action against the government of Uganda today, alleging that the inadequate care and facilities provided for pregnant women caused the deaths and violates their country’s constitution and women’s rights to life and health.
The case is unprecedented in Uganda. Aid agencies and medical charities and donor governments can condemn the death toll in pregnancy and childbirth, but the most powerful argument is the devastating testimony of those who suffer.
Sylvia Nalubowa died in Mityana hospital on 10 August 2009 from the complications of obstructed labour. She was carrying twins, one of whom was delivered. The second died with her. Jennifer Anguko died in Arua regional referral hospital on 10 December 2010 when her uterus finally ruptured after 15 hours of obstructed labour. Her status as a district councillor brought her no favours – she was said to be the fourth woman to die in that hospital that day.
Campaigners point out that 16 women die unnecessarily in Uganda of the complications of pregnancy and childbirth every day. In much of the country, there is little in the way of emergency obstetric care. There are shortages of doctors to carry out a caesarean to save the lives of mothers and their babies in obstructed labour and few ambulances to get the women to the theatre in time even if a doctor is available. I’ve seen it myself in Katine, in eastern Uganda – as I wrote here.
The families, who are supported by Ugandan health advocates and campaigners, argue that women in childbirth are denied the care and facilities they need. There are too few doctors, nurses and trained midwives, maternity units are ill-equipped and there are frequent drug stock-outs. And too many of the staff who are on the units treat women with abuse and contempt. This is from their petition Expectant mothers have continued to die in government hospitals under similar circumstances. Nurses and doctors solicit money out of them and other maternal health consumables and in the event that they fail to raise the money or other materials they are left unattended to which leads to their death and this violates their right to life.
I would find this hard to believe if I had not heard the same accounts from people in Katine, which I visited several times while the Guardian was sponsoring a development project there.
The petition argues that Uganda is not spending the money it promised on maternal and child health. The World Health Organisation mother and baby package, which the government agreed to implement, specifies spending of $1.40 per capita. Uganda spend just 50 cents, it says.
It is dispiriting that the legal action is needed, but for the sake of all Ugandan women, it clearly is.

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