“It is my aspiration that health finally will be seen not as a blessing to be wished for, but as a human right to be fought for.” Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General
Introduction: overcoming resistance to change
There is an urgent need for champions to push for accelerated reduction of the shockingly high maternal death rates in African countries, the general improvement of maternal health in the region, and the attainment of the fifth Millennium Development Goal (MDG5). One of the major challenges for the champions will be overcoming resistance to change. Resistance to change is to be found among all levels of society, among health professionals, including obstetricians and gynaecologists; midwives; medical and nursing training institutions; statutory regulatory bodies; professional societies; health management and administration, as well as political leadership and community in general.
But why is there resistance to change? People fear change, and in medicine there is the familiar tradition of: “We’ve always done it this way.” People harbour doubts as to whether innovations actually work better than the traditional practices. There are legal obstacles, including roles and practices prescribed in laws and regulations. There are limited human, financial and infrastructure resources to sustain application of new practices; and there are socio-cultural factors, gender roles including the status of women in society, that function as barriers to change.
Recent assessments of maternal mortality show that across Eastern and Southern Africa, “the most basic and natural act of giving life causes the death of almost 10 women every hour” . In 2008, some 79,000 women died in the region in the process of pregnancy and childbirth, accounting for more than one fifth of all such deaths in the world. According to the 2011 UNICEF Report, the latest estimated figures for maternal mortality ratio in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania are 490, 810, 440 and 580 respectively . These unacceptably high levels of maternal deaths make it extremely doubtful that these countries will succeed in reaching all the indicators of achieving improved maternal health (MDG5) in the next 4 years.
There is need for intensified advocacy, especially towards the recognition of women’s constitutional right to life and health, and therefore their right to quality reproductive health services, which ensure that every pregnancy is wanted; all pregnant women and their infants have access to skilled care; and that every woman is able to reach a functioning health facility to obtain appropriate care in the event of complications. After all, going through pregnancy and childbirth safely is what every woman should expect.
We know that even though complications of pregnancy cannot always be prevented, deaths from these complications can be averted. Up to 75 percent of all maternal deaths can be averted if women received timely and appropriate medical care. Maternal deaths from obstetric complications can be markedly reduced if skilled health personnel and essential supplies, equipment and facilities are available. And yet, apart from Malawi, where 54 percent of births were reported to have been attended by a skilled birth attendant, in the East African countries nearly 60% of all births take place unattended by a skilled attendant. Among the poorest women the majority of birth take place unattended by skilled personnel, the proportions being 72 percent in Uganda, 74 percent in Tanzania, and as high as 80 percent in Kenya .
The direct causes of maternal deaths have long been known, and so are the interventions to prevent them. We know what works and what does not work. Clearly, what is lacking is the commitment, at all levels, to act; to make the reduction of maternal mortality a high priority; and to reflect this in resource allocations to health services, especially for reproductive health services. Professor Mahmoud Fathalla of Egypt once observed that: “Women are not dying because of diseases we cannot treat. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their [women’s] lives are worth saving.” When will our countries decide?
It has been said (though there is want of data) that for every maternal death there are up to thirty times as many cases of pregnancy related illness or disability . The lack of or poor access to, obstetric care is responsible for a major burden of maternal morbidity in African countries. Among such morbidities are the obstetric fistulae, vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) and/or recto-vaginal fistula (RVF) which are usually the result of neglected obstructed labour.
Let me again illustrate this with the case of one of my patients, by name Halima. During my time in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the KNH, in the 1970s, I happened to be one of two gynaecologists with special interest in the treatment of urinary incontinence, the commonest cause of which was VVF. Urinary incontinence is one of the most frightful afflictions of human kind and often results in the sufferer becoming a social outcast. Yet, this condition, which arises mainly from prolonged obstruction of labour during childbirth, is a preventable problem if only all pregnant women had access to skilled care during labour and delivery. At any given time there were one or two such cases in my ward. Halima was one of two teenage girls transferred from the Wajir District Hospital in North-Eastern Kenya, with a very large VVF; almost the entire anterior vaginal wall was missing. We had to repair this defect in stages over several weeks using grafts from other parts of her body. The two girls almost became permanent residents of Ward 23 in the old KNH building, and to occupy them they were provided with knitting kits and encouraged to make whatever they fancied. One morning, as I conducted my ward round Halima presented me with a blue knitted sweater. I was deeply moved by this deed, and for several days pondered over it. I guessed this was her way of expressing gratitude, perhaps for our compassion towards her, because she was, as yet, not cured!
Several lessons can be learned from Halima’s case. Clearly, in terms of addressing her problem, our surgical treatment came at the tail end of a chain of events that resulted in a damage that should never have happened in the first place. Halima was barely 14, too young to be anyone’s wife and to have begun childbearing. She was subjected to the severest type of female circumcision (infibulation), and given off for marriage shortly afterwards. In both situations her human and reproductive rights had been denied; she had been abused by the societal norms she lived under. In fact female genital mutilation (FGM), forced early marriage, and coerced sex were tantamount to gender-based violence. Then when Halima became pregnant she was further denied the right to health care- an opportunity to have access to skilled attendance during the antenatal period, as well as care during childbirth. How sad it is to note that, today, four decades later, many African young women continue to live under conditions that pose as much reproductive risk to their lives and wellbeing as it was for Halima.
Abortion, a fertile ground for change
In Africa, despite the fact that induced abortion takes place among women from all levels of society, the brunt of abortion-related morbidity and mortality is borne almost exclusively by the young and poor women. This perhaps explains the dilatory approach to the prevention of such mortality, where leaders don’t want to take the obvious step towards prevention of unsafe abortion. After all, it does not affect their social class. As such unsafe abortion has continued to be a major contributor to the unacceptably high levels of maternal morbidity and mortality rates that prevail in Africa. It continues to be one of the formidable challenges to the achievement of MDG5 of improving maternal health by 2015.
Yet, it is obvious that stringent abortion laws have not deterred women in need from going through with an abortion; what such laws have achieved is to push many hapless women to undergo unsafe procedures with consequent high rates of morbidity and mortality. For such women, the desire to do away with an unwanted pregnancy can be so intense that they will avail themselves of this last resort despite the law, even the attendant risk to their lives. The procedure of medical termination of pregnancy is simple, short and safe when undertaken in the open, by trained persons; on the other hand clandestine abortion, usually performed by unskilled operators, is expensive, unsafe and life threatening.
The persistence of unsafe abortion in Africa is, ultimately, perpetuated by two key factors: (a) the restrictive laws against termination of pregnancy; and (b) the limited or lack of access to adequate abortion care services. Criminalisation of abortion in majority of African countries is something inherited from the colonial laws, despite the fact that the law has since decriminalised the procedure in the colonial “mother countries” (United Kingdom 1967; France 1975; Italy 1978; Spain 1985; Belgium 1990).
Increasing access to contraception is an effective primary intervention for the prevention of unsafe abortion. However, it is feared that induced abortion may continue being the only means of birth control for many women in some parts of Africa. These are women with very limited access to contraception, who include adolescents and youths who, supposedly on moralistic grounds, are denied not only the services but also information on sexuality.
“Abortion is legal but we just don’t know it”
Sadly, many of the women who suffer unsafe abortion live in countries where abortion is sanctioned under certain conditions, but they are unaware of this provision, or, because of various reasons, they cannot access safe abortion services in their countries. For example, the penal codes in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania sanction abortion for the preservation of the mother’s life and mental health. The Constitution of Kenya (2010) has recognised legal abortion, even though abortion remains generally restricted in Kenya . It is therefore incumbent upon health care providers to ensure women do have access to what they are legally entitled.
The above notwithstanding, it is regrettable that women continue to go through unsafe abortion even when they qualify for legal termination of pregnancy. In many cases this can be blamed on the health service provider, for example, ignorance of the law, negative attitudes and biases, and conscientious objection to termination of pregnancy; or the lack of appropriate facilities including trained providers. Service providers need to recognise their ethical and legal obligations to provide women in need of abortion with appropriate information on where safe services may be obtained. Medical policies and practices can also serve to restrict access to legal abortion, for example, insistence on unnecessary procedures /practices such hospitalisation. Access to services can also be restricted due to community related factors, especially lack of awareness about the law and facilities that provide legal abortion services.
Clearly, time has come for a paradigm shift in the attitudes of health workers and all others who come in touch with women seeking termination of pregnancy, from the attitude driven by deep-rooted suspicion to one of considerate review of all evidence present in order to ensure women are not denied safe abortion services to which they are legally entitled. The realization of unlimited implementation of existing legal and policy provisions ought to be a key goal of advocacy groups, including the Champions for reproductive rights in Africa.