Safe motherhood for disabled women

Date: December 2, 2009
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Men and women with disabilities face many challenges in Southern Africa, especially related to discrimination and access to services. For many women, this also means that they face challenges when accessing health care services at one of the times when it is most important – when they are pregnant.

Some women with disabilities need special attention and care, socially as well as medically, during their pregnancies for their own health safety as well as their babies. Unfortunately, such care is usually not the case. Rather, it is the opposite.

According to Rebecca Elieza from Disabled Association of Tanzania, disabled mothers are two or three times more likely to suffer from poor services than other women looking for pre-natal and ante-natal services, including facing discrimination.

“The nurse will ask odd questions, like how did you get pregnant? Were you raped?” says Elieza. “Don’t we all have the right to love and to be love?” she asks, adding that disabled women have the same feelings and desires to become mothers as any other woman. Elieza makes it clear that women with disabilities are not looking for pity, but simply need special care because they deserve safe motherhood.

Elieza’s sentiments are echoed by Rehema Darwish, who has a sight disability. Darwish shared her shocking testimony on first day of a three-day popular tribunal on girls and women morbidity and mortality in Tanzania.

With the help of her twelve-year-old daughter, Darwish took the podium and started narrating with a clear and soft voice. “In 1997 went to Muhimbili National Hospital for my second delivery, where the doctor told me that I had two healthy babies,” recounts Darwish. “Five days later the nurse removed one of the two children’s identification stickers, which were attached to both my hands. When I asked if one of my twins passed away, the nurse said I didn’t have twins.”

The primary school teacher said she overheard other mothers in the maternity ward whispering, “they have taken one of the poor blind woman’s twins.” They handed Darwish a single child the day she was discharged to go home. When she inquired about the other twin, they again told her that she didn’t have twins.

Darwish was accompanied to the tribunal by the twin that left with her that day form the hospital, Salama John who currently in standard six. Unfortunately, Darkwish did not report the matter to the police or other authorities. When asked why, she says that she was sick at the time. She appealed to the government to ensure that reproductive health services cater for disabled mothers like herself.

Responding to Eieza’s testimony, the Minister for Health and Social Welfare, Professor David Mwakyusa called upon women to report such kind of incidents immediately, even if it meant to report to a minister’s office.

Francis Kiwanga, an advocate and human rights activist from Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) agreed that its hard to pursue the case now, because it happened more than ten years ago. However, Kiwanga pointed out that the incident is an indication of a poor administrative system that does not provide enough avenues for complaints.

Problems associated with safe motherhood are not limited to women with disabilities. Current figures show that one Tanzanian woman dies in childbirth every hour. According to the current figures, 578 out of one hundred thousand women die due to the complications associated with delivering.

Midwives are often blamed for cruel treatment towards the women they are supposed to help and guide while in labour. Meanwhile, medical personnel are overburdened and forced to attend more patients than they can handle. Current figures show there is less than 40% what is needed in terms of medical personnel. Most health centres, as well as dispensaries, which are in grass root lacks medical equipment.

In August 2008, leaders of the Southern African Development Community signed the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. Among its 28 targets, this Protocol commits leaders to reducing the maternal mortality ratio by 75%.This includes developing and implementing policies and programmes addressing mental, sexual and reproductive health needs of women and men by 2015

To make this a reality, human rights and gender activists are calling upon the government to take firm measures to reduce and eventually put a stop to maternal mortality, particularly by allocating 15% of its budget to the health sector, as agreed in the Abuja resolution.

Along with holding governments accountable, individuals can help reduce maternal mortality by encouraging expectant parents to attend clinics as soon as they conceive. Safe motherhood should be a reality for all women, and for those with special needs, such as the disabled, this may also mean special care.

Bestina Magutu is a writer from Tanzania. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh news on every day news. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.


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