India: Too Many Women Dying in Childbirth

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India: Too Many Women Dying in Childbirth

Despite National Commitment, Many Unable to Access Services

Lucknow, India - Tens of thousands of Indian women and girls are dying during
pregnancy, in childbirth, and in the weeks after giving birth, despite
government programs guaranteeing free obstetric health care, Human
Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 150-page report "No Tally of the Anguish: Accountability in
Maternal Health Care in India" documents repeated failures both in
providing health care to pregnant women in Uttar Pradesh state in
northern India and in taking steps to identify and address gaps in
care. Uttar Pradesh has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in
India, but government surveys show it is not alone in struggling with
these problems, including a failure even to record how many women are
dying.

"Unless India actually counts all the women who die because of
childbirth, it won't be able to prevent those thousands of unnecessary
deaths," said Aruna Kashyap. "Accountability might seem like an
abstract concept, but for Indian women it's a matter of life and
death."

The report cites numerous examples of cases in which breakdowns in
the system ended tragically. Kavita K., for example, developed
post-partum complications, but the local community health center was
unable to treat her, according to her father, Suraj S., who said the
family then tried to take her to government hospitals in three
different towns.

"From Wednesday to Sunday - for five days - we took her from one
hospital to another," he told Human Rights Watch. "No one wanted to
admit her. In Lucknow, they admitted her and started treatment. They
treated her for about an hour, and then she died."

India created a flagship program, the National Rural Health Mission,
in 2005 to improve rural health, with a specific focus on maternal
health. The program promises "concrete service guarantees," including
free care before and during childbirth, in-patient hospital services,
comprehensive emergency obstetric care, referral in case of
complications, and postnatal care. But the system is not working as it
should in many cases, Human Rights Watch research showed.

The report identified critical shortcomings in the tools used to
monitor the health care system and identify recurring flaws in programs
and practice. While accountability measures, such as monitoring how and
why women die or are injured, or how many pregnant women with
complications can use the government's emergency obstetric facilities,
may seem dry or abstract, they are critical to intervening in time to
make a difference and to saving the lives of women.

The major gaps in the system identified by Human Rights Watch are:

  • The failure to gather the necessary information at the district
    level about where, when, and why deaths and injuries are occurring and
    whether women with pregnancy complications in practice get access to
    emergency obstetric care; and
  • The absence of accessible grievance and redress mechanisms, including emergency response systems.

"India has recognized that thousands and thousands of its women are
dying unnecessarily, and it could be leading the world in reversing
that deadly pattern," said Kashyap. "But for all India's good
intentions, the system still leaves many women at risk of death or
injury."

The research for the report was conducted between November 2008 and
August 2009, and included field research and interviews with victims,
families, medical experts, officials and human rights activists in
Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in India. Researchers reviewed government
surveys and reports by local and international nongovernmental
organizations.

The investigations in Uttar Pradesh also show that while health
authorities are upgrading public health facilities, they still have a
long way to go. The majority of public health facilities have yet to
provide basic and comprehensive emergency obstetric care. Many have a
health worker trained in midwifery but who can do little to save the
life of a pregnant woman unless supported by a functioning health
system, including an adequate supply of drugs, emergency care, and
referral systems for complications.

The reality is far different from what is guaranteed to women on
paper. Niraja N., a health worker who routinely accompanies pregnant
women to health facilities so they can give birth told Human Rights
Watch:

"Nothing is free for anyone. What happens when we take a woman for
delivery to the hospital is that she will have to pay for her cord to
be cut ... for medicines, some more money for the cleaning. The staff
nurse will also ask for money. They do not ask the family directly ...
We have to take it from the family and give it to them [staff nurses]
... And those of us [ASHAs] who don't listen to the staff nurse or if
we threaten to complain, they make a note of us. They remember our
faces and then the next time we go they don't treat our [delivery]
cases well. They will look at us and say ‘referral' even if it is a
normal case."

In part, this happens because many women are unaware of their
entitlements under health care programs and have no way to make sure
that their complaints and concerns about the treatment meted out to
them at health facilities or by health workers are heard and addressed.

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Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.

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