Uganda court rules government must prioritise maternal health in 'huge shift'

Ruling is result of lawsuit filed over deaths in childbirth of two women due to staff negligence and lack of facilities

Health rights activists in Uganda have welcomed a landmark court ruling that the government should increase its health budget to ensure women receive decent maternal healthcare services.

The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed in 2011 over the deaths in childbirth of two women – Jennifer Anguko and Sylvia Nalubowa – in a public health facility.

In a unanimous decision on Wednesday, a panel of five judges said the government needed to prioritise maternal healthcare in its budgets for the next two financial years.

This year the government has allocated 2.7tn Ugandan shillings (£560m) for health, about 6% of the total national budget. Uganda is a signatory to the Abuja declaration, which requires governments to spend at least 15% of their annual budgets on health.

Judges said the women died because of staff negligence and because the health centre lacked basic facilities to support them giving birth.

“Women suffer a lot due to shortages or shortcomings in the delivery of maternal healthcare services caused by stock-outs of maternal health care packages, drugs, professional negligence,” said Justice Barishaki Cheborion.

Limited health budgets had deprived women of the opportunity to safely deliver their babies, he said. “Preventable deaths of pregnant women at government hospitals deprive women of the right to enjoy and realise their sexual and reproductive rights.”

Cheborion added: “The deaths of Anguko and Nalubowa were a result of non-availability of basic maternal health services and negligence of health workers.

“The actions caused utmost pain, degrading and cruel treatment of the deceased for the period they spent in the said hospitals fighting for their lives with no hope of survival until they died. This also caused untold suffering and loss to their families.”

Family members of Anguko and Nalubowa were each awarded 155m Ugandan shillings in compensation.

According to World Bank figures, for every 100,000 live births in Uganda, 375 mothers die from complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

“The judgment is a huge shift from the belief that basic maternal health commodities cannot be immediately provided in public health facilities as a matter of rights,” said Moses Mulumba, the executive director of the Center for Health Human Rights and Development), which filed the lawsuit. “The judges have made history for mothers that always lack the voice and power in the scramble for resources and prioritisation in the political and economic spaces.”

He said his organisation would now focus on making sure the judgment is acted upon.

Diana Atwine, permanent secretary at the ministry of health, said the government was already prioritising maternal healthcare in its budget.

Emmanuel Ainebyoona, a spokesperson for the ministry of health, said: “We generate and submit our budget. But it’s the ministry of finance, parliamentary budget and parliament as a whole that allocates the funds.”


Samuel Okiror in Kampala

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists
Campaigners fear ban emboldens anti-choice governments as more aggressive opposition, better organised and funded, spreads from US

Lizzy Davies

18, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
India's doctors learn safer abortion techniques to cut maternal deaths | Sophie Cousins
At a hospital in Bangalore, doctors and nurses are being trained in a safer, quicker abortion procedure and how to better support the women in their care

Sophie Cousins in Delhi

09, Mar, 2016 @10:21 AM

Article image
Real justice could finally be delivered by Uganda's key maternal health ruling | Asia Russell
By putting the spotlight on Uganda’s government, the supreme court ruling in the case of two women who died in childbirth has changed the political climate

Asia Russell

02, Nov, 2015 @1:05 PM

Article image
Global shortfall of nearly 1m midwives due to failure to value role, study finds
Investing in midwifery could prevent two-thirds of maternal and newborn deaths, but investment and training are urgently needed

Liz Ford

06, May, 2021 @6:15 AM

Article image
Kenya lifts ban on Marie Stopes abortion services after warning lives are at risk
Clinics reopen in country where backstreet abortions kill seven women a day and hospitalise 320

Rebecca Ratcliffe

21, Dec, 2018 @2:19 PM

Article image
Uganda's supreme court rules maternal health suit must be heard
Government could be held to account over maternal healthcare shortcomings after decision to dismiss case is overturned on appeal

Richard M Kavuma in Kampala

30, Oct, 2015 @5:53 PM

Article image
Declare abortion a public health issue during pandemic, WHO urged
Charities press World Health Organization to ensure women can get contraception and safe abortions during crisis

Liz Ford

10, Apr, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Innovations fund aims to save women and newborn babies in Africa
$7m Grand Challenges scheme invites African researchers to find solutions to the continent’s high rates of maternal and neonatal death

Richard M Kavuma in Kampala

23, Nov, 2016 @1:28 PM

Article image
Baby blues: rural Myanmar’s desperate need for family planning services
Large families in the poorest regions suffer poor health and nutrition, but access to contraception and maternal care is limited

Charlotte England in Chin State

16, Jun, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Fears that maternal health funding cuts could put lives at risk
As the Women Deliver conference starts in Copenhagen, the UN agency responsible for reducing global maternal mortality faces a £98m shortfall

Liz Ford in Copenhagen

16, May, 2016 @6:00 AM