Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Women’s Rights are Human Rights!

Congratulations! But take heart! Just yesterday another woman who resides in Ikorodu, a suburb in Lagos, Nigeria, died because her husband was not available to sign a document authorising the doctor to commence a life-saving operation on her.

The disheartening death of more than half a million (500,000) women across the world annually from complications arising from pregnancy and childbearing is alarming and should be seen from the human rights angle if any progress is to come.

More disheartening is the fact that several individuals and institutions still perpetrate the “sacred” act of gaining permission from the husband before seeking health services upon birth. But why should a woman seek the consent and signature of her husband who has the locus standi before an operation (no matter how urgent and life-threatening) could be carried out on her? What happens if she wants it as an independent decision? Why are men not subjected to the same process of seeking the consent and obtaining the signature of their wives or another female who has the locus standi before an operation, no matter how little or complex, could be carried out on him?

The displacement and cultural relegation of women relative to men is also a vital contributor to maternal mortality. A cross-national study of 79 developing countries found that women’s status is a strong predictor of maternal mortality. A study of women’s autonomy and use of maternal health care services in Uttar Pradesh, India, found that women with greater freedom of movement obtained more antenatal care and were more likely to use safe-delivery care.

In Nigeria, there is still great debate on whether the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) should be ratified. CEDAW, in essence, establishes an agenda for national action towards putting a concrete stop to discrimination. It also makes provision for bringing about equality between men and women; this is intended by fostering women's equal access and opportunity to political and public life as well as education, health and employment.

In addition, Article 12 of CEDAW mandates governments of state parties to make available appropriate services in relation with pregnancy, delivery, and the post-natal period. It also obliges the government of state parties to ensure access to free services, where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.

Nigeria is a signatory to many international treaties, covenant and conventions including CEDAW. Like many other countries, Nigeria is hit by the devastating effect of maternal mortality. This is, among other reason, due to the fact that though Nigeria is a signatory to the several international treaties and conventions, it is yet to legislate concretely on issues relating to maternal mortality.

In the light of the increasing deaths accruing from maternal mortality, there is the need for Nigeria to view health issues as life issues. As such, this should be seen from the guaranteed point of section 33 of the Nigerian constitution which provides that: “Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria.”

Thus if it is not a crime for a woman to be pregnant, then it is criminal for the government or any other institutions or persons to deprive the woman of her right to life by not providing all resources and facilities necessary to ensure safe motherhood.

There is a need to bridge the gap between the works being done and the devastating effect of complications arising from maternal mortality. Aside from legal and political instruments, Nigerian state parties should also ensure advancement of technological innovations in terms of equipment, supplies, procedures, techniques and manpower development to help mitigate the devastating incidences of maternal mortality.

At the various levels of policy formulation and implantation at the national, management or service levels, deliberate effort should be made at fostering human rights principles into proposed projects and programs. This is achievable by legislating to stop all forms of discrimination against women, including violence against women (particularly harmful practices affecting women's health); putting in place adequate antenatal, delivery, and postpartum care for all women; providing family planning services and information to all women and adolescents of reproductive age; and empowering women to be responsible for their reproductive health decision by putting an end to the spousal consent requirement for some particular services.

These are basic human rights and no matter what is being done, they must not be compromised. They are non-negotiable. They should be given to the woman because she is a crucial member of the human family.

By Kawe Lucky

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