Governments have a human rights obligation to guarantee women’s access to timely and nondiscriminatory maternal health services, according to a recent ruling by a major United Nations human rights body.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) issued the Aug. 10 ruling, concluding the first maternal death case ever to be decided by an international human rights body.
The case began in 2002 with the tragic death of Alyne da Silva Pimentel, a 28-year-old Brazilian of African descent. Alyne was denied timely care at a public health facility and later died after giving birth to a stillborn baby. Five years later, her mother brought the case to CEDAW, stating the government of Brazil violated her daughter’s right to life and health by failing to meet its obligation to ensure the health and rights of her daughter.
In her complaint, Maria de Lourdes da Silva Pimentel invoked Articles 2 and 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which call on the government to pursue all appropriate means to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care.
Brazil is an emerging economic power in South America. While the country has dramatically reduced maternal deaths in the last 10 years, the progress at the national level belies the extreme disparities in maternal health care that still exist based on race, socioeconomic status and geography.
The ruling sends a powerful message in the international arena and demands that the government compensate Alyne's family and take steps to ensure women's rights to safe motherhood and health care. More broadly, it establishes that maternal health is a human rights responsibility of governments that must be taken seriously and that applies to all women, including indigenous, impoverished women who are most affected by maternal mortality.
Created in 1982, the Committee is made up of 23 experts on women’s issues worldwide. The Committee mandate is to monitor progress for women in countries that are parties to the Convention. Members review national reports to assess the steps being taken to improve situations for women—a process that itself enables continuous dialogue and focus on anti-discrimination policies.
Photo by C. Ngongo/EngenderHealth