HARARE, Zimbabwe — According to the United Nations, 3,000 Zimbabwean women die annually while giving birth, and 1.23 percent of the country’s GDP is lost every year because of health complications during childbirth. For women living in rural areas, the impact is particularly dire due to a lack of safe and affordable options for obstetric care.
Zimbabwe’s maternal mortality rate is over 960 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, which places it with 40 other nations that are considered to have a high mortality rate.
The global maternal mortality rate is 287 women per 100,000 live births, representing a 50 percent decrease since 1990. The rate jumps to 500 when looking at Sub-Saharan Africa.
Zimbabwe’s Millennium Goals call for a 75 percent decrease in maternal deaths by 2015, but ministry secretary Gerald Gwinji disclosed on February 4, 2014 that the country would not meet the goal. And, bucking global trends, the maternal mortality rate in Zimbabwe is getting higher. The maternal death rate rose by 28 percent from 1990 to 2010.
After gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1980, the Zimbabwean government built maternity wards in every major hospital and created the infrastructure necessary for a robust, affordable health system.
In recent years, however, the county has suffered from a healthcare professional brain drain and a decreasing amount of funds being allocated to health services by the government.
The 2013 U.N. report Maternal Mortality in Zimbabwe: Evidence, Costs, and Implications explains that the reasons that Zimbabwe is seemingly unable to reduce its maternal death rate are worsening social inequalities, AIDS, and poor access to emergency obstetric care, especially in rural areas.
About one-third of women in Zimbabwe give birth at home. Poorer women also cannot afford healthcare, so more than 50 percent of new mothers do not go back to the hospital for postnatal doctor visits.
Though there are available subsidies for poor women to receive healthcare, there is no specific law requiring facilities to give free care to women, children and other groups with higher vulnerability.
The Zimbabwean government has enacted a policy that bans government health employees from charging pregnant women for health services, but hospitals will not enact the policy due to a lack of subsidies for facility costs such as water and electricity. Due to a lack of funding, the government has also frozen roughly 400 doctor and nurse jobs across the country, leaving a shortage of qualified healthcare workers and many others looking for work.
In 2009 in an effort to curb a hyper-inflated economy, Zimbabwe adopted multiple foreign currencies, primarily the American dollar. This move negatively affected pregnant women seeking health services because foreign currencies are more difficult to find.
About 100 miles outside of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, Moses Jemwa lives in Cheneka village. His wife died while giving birth when she was 31 years old, while aided by traditional birth attendants.
He recalls, “Vananyamukuta [a traditional birth attendant]killed her. She said she had performed several home deliveries before and conducted her business alone in the hut. I have no idea what she did to her, but after running into problems, that’s when she said we must put her in a wheelbarrow and rush her to Rusape General Hospital.”
He continues, “She didn’t make it. It was all my fault, I should have taken her to hospital, but I had no money.”
Dewa Mavhinga, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, points to the Zimbabwean government as having “misplaced priorities” and as presiding “over a massive corruption within state institutions.” He states that such corruption is diverting funds away from reviving the health sector.
Mavhinga urges, “Government should urgently prioritise social services delivery in fulfilment of its human rights obligations enshrined in the new constitution. Maternal mortality must be declared a national disaster deserving urgent national attention and deployment of sufficient human and financial resources to address it.”
– Kaylie Cordingley