The Safe Birthing Programme: empowering and transforming the lives of rural women in Northern Uganda

“…IWI aims to raise awareness of the threats to the human rights of women across the globe, thereby generating momentum in promoting gender equality; and at least for some women in rural Uganda the Safe Birthing Programme means hope, and a more favorable future.”

By Arthur Sá Anunciação

Assistant Director of Programmes & Development, The Safe Birthing Programme

Progress towards the achievement of gender equality has never been so hotly debated as very recently. When someone as young as Malala Yousafzai promotes the idea that women cannot all succeed when half of them are held back, it demonstrates that the new consensus regarding the role of women in gender equality and sustainable development has been spread to different levels of modern society from our youth to adults. This global consensus refers particularly to the agenda post-2015 which not only stresses the need for female representation in different sectors of society and culture, but also recommends a more participatory approach, for example by expecting more girls enrolled in schools; more women working in different sectors of the economy, more women being elected and assuming leadership positions (UN WOMEN, 2015).

By immerging into this debate, it becomes apparent that recognition should be the initial gateway when it comes to empowering women around the globe and ensuring their rights. Education, of course, is undoubtedly a way of establishing full recognition and access to leadership positions. However, regardless of levels of education, financial background and geographic location, women worldwide play an essential role in economics and politics, by supporting the fight against poverty, by assuring improved health conditions in communities, by practicing nutritional advice with their children and many other aspects. Obviously, the recent optimistic approach does not mean that women all over the globe are anywhere close to being seen as equal to men, in fact the road towards equality is still long and complex and there is still a lot to be done before recognition and equality transcends societies.

By stressing the need for recognition, we cannot fail to highlight the complexity surrounding the needs of women in rural areas due to different levels of representation, and therefore different levels of vulnerability. According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, rural women are normally exposed to enshrined economic, health and social risks due to the lack of representation within their communities.

The United Nations launched in 2008 the first celebration of the International Day of Rural Women, the 15th October, to be a day in which rural women would have their need for recognition and the promotion of their rights embraced by collective action. By launching this initiative, the Assembly aimed to ensure that rural women have their critical role and contribution to enhancing rural development, improving food security, and eradicating rural poverty recognized globally.

Rural Women in Uganda

Agriculture is one of the mainstays of the Ugandan economy. However, Uganda is also considered one of the world's most vulnerable and least climate change-resilient countries (IFAD, 2012). This conclusion has been made due to the lack of health care and other general social services responsible for putting rural women at a particular degree of disadvantage when compared with women in urban centers. This situation hasn’t changed much since the last IFAD report in 2012.  

A report from the UN Foundation stated that “pregnant women in rural Uganda often live quite far from the nearest health center and the lack access to transportation that can easily get them to a clinic when they're ready to deliver a child. And so, when they find themselves in labor, these women usually end up having to walk to the nearest clinic to seek medical attention. Sometimes, they even give birth on the walk over” (Ryan, 2016). This report stresses that the situation of rural women in Uganda remains critical, and an improvement to their conditions is utterly necessary in order to bring it even close to acceptable to modern standards.

At the same time, many rural women in Uganda directly contribute to rural livelihoods, by acting as part of the labor force and bringing prosperity to their homes and communities, for example by cultivating, harvesting and selling crops, despite this, by and large their actions go unrecongnised. Rural women in Uganda tend to spend more time than urban women doing domestic and household work. The lack of representation is not only related to rural work but also to social participation. Many women still face male confrontation when it comes to participatory roles within their communities. For example it is not uncommon for women to still need to obtain permission from their husbands in order to participate in development schemes promoted by funders and governments (The Guardian, 2010).   

A recent UN report on the improvement of the situation of women in rural areas stated that “in the least developed countries, a woman living in a rural area is 38 per cent less likely to give birth with a skilled health professional than her counterpart in the city.” (UN Women, 2016). This prevents rural women from having adequate care in which post-natal complications can lead to losses not only to the woman and her baby, but also, due to the essential role women play, to the entire community, creating a negative impact on economic and social development.

Birthing kits in Amolatar District: a positive step towards sustainable development.

By taking all these limitations into account and also the recommendations set up by the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda (SDGs), the flagship programme of the International Women’s Initiative (IWI): the Safe Birthing Programme (SBP) intends to reduce maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in the Amolatar District in Northern Uganda by improving sanitary conditions through the provision of birthing kits, and therefore preventing childbirth complications for mother and child. This initiative has been developed as a low cost and high impact solution in order to respond to SDG3 which regards good health and well-being and also SDG 5 intended to promote gender equality.

Through the provisioning of these kits in Amolatar district the SBP initiative aims to provide an improvement of care available in the local health centres, which rely on the support of 78 health workers, distributed among the 8 sub-counties. The initiative of distributing of these kits in Uganda might seem insignificant when considering their humble contents; but in fact, a plastic sheet, gauze, cord, gloves scalpel blade and soap are more than enough in order to provide a substantial improvement to the health infrastructure, relative to what is currently available.

It is hoped that the provision of a small kit will fundamentally change many lives and strengthen rural communities. By providing better birthing conditions to many women in rural communities, IWI together with its partners is working as an actor of transformation. IWI aims to raise awareness of the threats to the human rights of women across the globe, thereby generating momentum in promoting gender equality; and at least for some women in rural Uganda the Safe Birthing Programme means hope, and a more favorable future.