African countries may face lawsuits from rights groups over maternal deaths during COVID-19 – Study


Women in at least 45 countries were subjected to traumatic childbirth incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic in violation of the recommendations of the World Health Organisation, WHO and national laws.

OpenDemocracy, a global media organisation in the UK, revealed this in a study after compiling a dataset of over 100 women across various countries who gave birth in unsanitary and unsafe places while walking to the hospital.

Documenting the experiences of women across five continents namely Europe, Oceania, North/South America and Africa, the group says it’s finding may prompt human rights lawyers to hold their governments to account.

Women’s Link Worldwide and 12 partners in Kenya have taken the initiative as they sued the Kenyan Government for forced COVID-19 restrictions which led to maternal deaths and injuries, contravening the African Union’s Maputo Protocol and its national laws.

Nelly Weraga, a lawyer with Women’s Link Worldwide said if government’s COVID-19 measures failed to guarantee women’s rights they could be sued.

“You can be sure, cases are going to be filed,” she said

According to the study, six countries in Africa were identified where women died or resorted to unsafe home births while the COVID-19 transport restrictions were in place, preventing them from accessing medical care.

In Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, women died after failing to access medical care due to transport restrictions or because health workers refused to treat them.

It also emphasised that transport restrictions stopped women from access to medical care in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.

Health experts predict that thousands of women in poorer countries will die from COVID-19 restrictions and the pandemic’s impacts on health systems which might slow the progress rate on meeting the United Nations, UN, development goals.

In Uganda, the study stated that at least three women died because of transport restrictions that prevented them from reaching the hospital in time.

Health centres in some parts of the country, due to fewer resources and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shortages, turned away pregnant women because health workers were afraid of catching coronavirus.

WHO global guideline stipulates that pregnant women “have the right to quality care before, during and after childbirth”.

It also states that women should have a companion of their choice during delivery and receive respectful treatment and clear communication from maternity staff, appropriate pain relief, and support to hold their baby skin-to-skin and to breastfeed, even if they are COVID-19 positive

Jesca Sabiiti, Uganda’s maternal and child health commissioner said the pandemic is “likely to delay” the attainment of UN development goals to dramatically reduce the number of maternal deaths.

She said that her country’s transport restrictions had exemptions for people in medical emergencies “but this was not well understood by both the population and the police who were arresting people.”

In May, experts warned in The Lancet, a Science Journal, that up to 56,700 more maternal deaths are likely to occur in poorer countries over a six-month period due to COVID-19 restrictions and disruptions to health services.

Melissa Upretti, a human rights lawyer and member of a UN working group on discrimination against women described openDemocracy’s findings “shocking and disturbing”.

“Discrimination is from a legal standpoint. We do have a very strong case to make… that governments are violating their own laws and policies,” she said.

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