Major aid donors that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on maternal health each year have denounced “disturbing” evidence collected by openDemocracy of women’s rights being violated in childbirth during the pandemic.
“My baby was taken to ICU and I was not able to see him for four days,” a mother who gave birth in Georgia in June told openDemocracy. “Since then, we have only been able to see our son once a day for one hour and were only able to hold him from the time he was ten days’ old due to ‘COVID-19 restrictions’.”
The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) is concerned by these reports, said a spokesperson for the aid agency that spent £134 million in 2018 on global maternal and neonatal health.
“All DfID health programmes must follow World Health Organization (WHO) guidance, including promoting a safe and positive childbirth experience,” she said. DfID has been “working with our in-country advisors to highlight these issues and reiterate the importance of reporting any concerns”, she added.
Since the pandemic was declared in March, openDemocracy has documented cases of WHO guidance not being followed in at least 45 countries – including numerous examples of mothers being forcibly separated from newborns, or required to have ‘mandatory’ C-sections.
Following the publishing of our findings, women, their relatives and healthcare professionals from five additional countries have responded to openDemocracy’s ongoing call for further evidence and examples of this guidance being flouted.
Åsa Andersson, head of sexual and reproductive health and rights policy at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), denounced openDemocracy’s “disturbing” findings.
Andersson said: “The devastating impact COVID-19 has on health system and lives of all, including the disturbing reports of disrespectful treatment and reduced access to safe delivery by media and partners such as openDemocracy, highlights the need for strengthening the monitoring of the implementation of the WHO guidance and support for quality, gender-sensitive services.”
SIDA spent more than $122 million in direct aid to maternal and newborn health in 2019.
openDemocracy’s investigation documented cases in at least five countries of pregnant women who died as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, including bans on public transportation in Africa during lockdowns.
Human rights lawyers have warned that African countries will face lawsuits as a result, particularly as governments are required by the African Union’s Maputo Protocol to ensure their pandemic emergency measures protect women’s rights.
Disruptions to the health service caused by the pandemic is projected to roll back years of progress made to reduce maternal and child deaths.
The UNFPA, which said it spent between $400 and $500 million directly on maternal and newborn health last year, has issued a technical brief for maternal health facilities on how to provide “safe and effective maternal care” during the pandemic.
Geeta Lal, UNFPA senior technical advisor and global midwifery programme coordinator, acknowledges that even before the pandemic, “harmful, disrespectful and abusive treatment of women during reproductive health care and facility-based childbirth is widespread, a violation of women’s human rights, and […] occurs across all regions of the world and all income levels”.
UNICEF is concerned about women being discouraged from breastfeeding and has produced a safe breastfeeding guide for mothers including for those infected with the virus.
UNICEF’s Serbia office is planning to conduct an assessment to see if the maternity facilities are following WHO recommendation on breastfeeding during COVID, including enabling skin-to-skin contact and no separation of mothers and newborns, said spokesperson Sabrina Sidhu.
Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) says that preventing maternal and child deaths is one of its top three global health priorities and it has spent $19 billion over the past seven years on this.
“USAID has and continues to work directly with host country governments, non-governmental partners and professional associations to address any abuse and violence against women, as well as deviance from evidence-based practices, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure women have access to high-quality, respectful, essential maternal health services,” according to the agency.