A tale of two women, and many, many more

Picture by Katherine Romero.

Picture by Katherine Romero.

On 19th August 2009 Sylvia Nalubowa bled to death during childbirth in Mityana Hospital whilst an attendant looked on but had no way to help her. Jennifer Anguko died in Arua Hospital on 10th December 2010. She had waited for over ten hours to be attended but by the time she was, it was too late. Constitutional Petition No. 16 of 2011 is the name of the case taken by the Centre for Health, Human Rights and Development (www.cehurd.org)[1] against the Ugandan government for its failure to prevent the deaths of Sylvia and Jennifer, as well as its failure generally to address the alarming rate of maternal deaths in Uganda. The petition, led by lawyer Nakibuuka Noor Musisi of CEHURD, claims that the non-provision of basic indispensable health maternal commodities in government health facilities and the imprudent and unethical behavior of health workers towards expectant mothers are inconsistent with the Constitution and a violation of the right to health.

In my primary school there were usually about 50 kids in the room. If all of the children in my classroom had been Ugandan girls, one of us would eventually die from a maternal cause. This arresting truth is based on a statistic called the lifetime risk of maternal death[2] – it refers to the probability that a 15 year old young woman will eventually die from a maternal cause. In Uganda the lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 woman or girl in every 49. To put that figure in context, in Iran one woman or girl in every 2,400 will die, in Bosnia and Herzegovnia one in every 11,400 and in Greece one woman or girl in every 25,500.  I have no idea what size of a stadium would fit 25,500 women and girls, but I know that it would be an awful lot bigger than my classroom.

Joy Rugasira from the NGO CEHURD. Picture by Katherine Romero.

Joy Rugasira from the NGO CEHURD. Picture by Katherine Romero.

By June of this year the families of Sylvia and Jennifer had been waiting over a year for a decision, an unheard of length of time in Uganda. So, for my first visit to Uganda I found myself, with senior lawyer Katherine Romero, marching the streets to the Constitutional Court with concerned pregnant women, families, husbands, activists and a large contingent of young male students, all led by a pretty impressive marching band.  Apparently in Uganda, nobody marches without a great band, and I can see why. People joined the march along the way, cars stopped to read the banners we carried, and we sang our way to the entrance of the Constitutional Court. The aim: to encourage the Court to make its decision, preferably one acknowledging its failure to ensure the rights of women and girls, sooner rather than later.

Amidst this hopeful revelry marched a quiet, dignified man from Arua by the name of Valenti Inziku.  He had travelled 300 kilometers the night before to join the march in the name of his deceased wife Jennifer, and he left quietly afterwards. He cut a lone figure, yet he is just one of many, men, women and children, who directly and acutely the fatal affects of maternal death and the less publicized affects of maternal morbidity. Alongside him was Nakibuuka Noor Musisi: heavily pregnant herself, she marched for Ugandan society – not just its women. What happens to a village when its women die in swathes? What happens to the children, the families, their partners? What changes begin to permeate such a society?

Lawyer Nakibuuka Noor Musisi of CEHURD in front of the Court. Picture by Katherine Romero.

Lawyer Nakibuuka Noor Musisi of CEHURD in front of the Court. Picture by Katherine Romero.

A few days after leaving Uganda, the Constitutional Court announced its decision. It upheld the legal objection of the government that the Court did not have competence to judge the case as it was within the sphere of the executive. CEHURD have appealed to the Supreme Court and we wait to see whether this Court will allow these women’s stories to be heard.

In the interim Women’s Link Worldwide continues to provide technical assistance to CEHURD in relation to sexual and reproductive rights. It is my hope and belief that this exchange of national, regional and international experience and knowledge will continue to be mutually beneficial for both organizations as well as all the Syvias, Jennifers and all the other women who remain unnamed in both regions.

Waiting for Judgement. Picture from Katherine Romero's archive.

Waiting for Judgement. Picture from Katherine Romero’s archive.

[1] CEHURD is a Uganda based NGO, created and led by David Kabanda and Moses Mulumba, which focuses on human rights, in particular the right to health.

[2] Trends in Maternal Mortality, 1990-2010, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and the World Bank estimates, WHO, 2012, 6.



  1. Juliana Nantaba(CEHURD) says:

    The fact that we are sharing and exchanging national, regional and international experiences is definitely a step in the right direction.

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