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Over seventy students, lawyers, nurses, midwives, NGO staff from across Africa and other interested individuals packed a lecture hall on Wednesday 19 October for a panel discussion on maternal health in South Africa presented by the Centre for Human Rights. As the rate of maternal mortality more than quadrupled in South Africa in the last decade, the need to examine the related issues, challenges and opportunities is critical.

Panelist Karen Clark presented one inspiring success story, which represents a potential model for maternal health in rural areas. Ms Clark’s Birthworks Busfare Babies Birth Centre provides compassionate, quality care for pregnant women in rural Eastern Cape province, where she noted that care for women is often difficult to access. Delays in health care for expectant mothers can have disastrous consequences, including threats of HIV transmission and complications that can claim the lives of mother and/or child. Unfortunately, as Ms Clark observed, where access to health care is available, women often complain that medical staff are verbally and sometimes physically abusive before, during and after labor.

Dr Agnes Odhiambo from Human Rights Watch shared findings from her organisation’s recent report on maternal mortality and morbidity titled “Stop Making Excuses.” Dr Odhiambo told the group that 385 000 women globally die each year from pregnancy-related causes. More than 4 500 are South African women. What’s worse, perhaps, is that these deaths are entirely preventable. And this, she stated, is what makes maternal health a human rights issue. Maternal mortality typically follows a series of human rights violations, such as denial of the rights to health, education, liberty, dignity and life. Governments must do more to, according to Dr Odhiambo, to offer a continuum of services from adolescence through adulthood, which necessitates an increase in the number of skilled health care workers and includes unfettered access to family planning and safe abortion options. Dr Odhiambo also stressed the importance of accountability where the identification of key problem areas can help address pregnancy-related health issues and deaths. 

As the Chief Director of Maternal and Women's Health within the National Department of Health, panelist Dr Eddie Mhlanga understands that there is a great need to eliminate provincial disparities in the access to and quality of maternal health care in South Africa. Challenges exist, he recognized, stemming from the lack of skilled health care professionals and the prevalence of negative attitudes about the state health care system. South Africa must undertake initiatives, he said, to improve primary health care, increase the skills of midwives and nurses, and ensure access to contraception and family planning services. As importantly, declared Dr Mhlanga, there must be strong and substantial advocacy for women’s rights because, as he eloquently concluded, “unless women are respected, nothing else will make sense.”

And it is true. The women of South Africa are delivering the country’s future every day; it is therefore incumbent on the country to deliver South African women’s human rights every day.