Kenyan Court Ruling Demands Accountability in the Global Maternal Health Crisis Facing Black Women

A woman who was physically and verbally abused while giving birth at a hospital in Kenya was awarded $25,000 last month in a landmark court decision that expanded conversations around black women’s reproductive health and rights—and the global maternal mortality epidemic facing black mothers.

Josephine Majani was forced to deliver her child on the floor after enduring abuse from nurses at Bungoma District Hospital in 2013. “When intense labor pains started, having called in vain for assistance, Josephine walked unaided to the delivery room,” the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) detailed in a press release, “where she discovered that all the beds were occupied. While attempting to return to her bed in the labor room, she collapsed and gave birth on the floor. On finding her there unconscious, two nurses repeatedly slapped and verbally abused Josephine in anger because she had dirtied the floor when she delivered her baby. Once conscious, she was ordered to walk to the delivery room, still unaided, to be examined. She was released with her baby the following day, and suffered severe emotional trauma as a consequence of her treatment at the hands of uncaring staff.”

CRR quickly gave its full attention to Majani’s mistreatment, serving as her legal counsel and demanding justice not just in her own case, but for all women relying on the services at Bungoma. “I saw them carry the baby away,” Majani told NPR. “They screamed at me: ‘Why have you delivered on the floor? Who is going to clean up all this blood? Get up. Get your things and go back to the delivery room.’ I was helpless.”

Five years later, Majani is no longer helpless—instead, she is a trailblazer in the fight for reproductive justice and women’s rights in Africa. Kenyan High Court Judge Justice Abida Ali Aroni ruled that Majani’s treatment constituted a violation of her human rights, citing her health and dignity as among them, and held not only the hospital, but the county government and secretary of health accountable for her traumatic experience—demanding, in the process, that allocation of resources and health standards address the inequities that made her abuse possible.

Majani’s victory marked the first time an African woman and mother was able to fight a medical institution and win—and expands a critical dialogue on the reproductive health and rights of black women around the world. Just last month, the New York Times published a cover story on the “life-or-death crisis” facing black mothers and babies in the U.S., noting massive gaps in maternal and infant mortality rates between white and black communities. Black infants are twice as likely to die as white infants in the U.S., and black women are up to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. Some of the disparities recounted in the piece, the Times noted, are “actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel;” others are worse now than they were decades ago.

Mere weeks before the Times published its report, CRR announced Majani’s victory—an eye-opening foreshadow to a growing conversation about black women’s health in the U.S. that also highlights a global epidemic facing black mothers. Black mothers who have lost their children and their lives to the faulty and systemically racist and misogynistic actions of medical institutions and structural policies and practices can be told from Kenya to the U.S., and in every nation in-between.

The “life-or-death crisis” facing black women in the U.S. isn’t new, nor is it unique. The global reproductive crisis of black mothers dates back centuries, and tightly-wound systems of inequality created and now sustain it.

Jordannah Elizabeth is an author, lecturer, music critic and feminist writer. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Bitch Media, LA Weekly and Village Voice and is bi-coastal by nature. She is the author of Don’t Lose Track Vol 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As.

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