Improving maternal mortality rates in the DRC are complicated by conflict and poor access to needed services.
From 1998 to 2003, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, experienced the deadliest conflict since World War II, with over 5 million deaths. A formal peace deal was signed in 2003, but armed groups still rove the eastern borders near Uganda and Rwanda, leaving a continuous trail of violence and instability. While all residents of the DRC have been completely ravaged by decades of war, no one has experienced the horrors of war as severely as women. Rape and sexual violence have reached epidemic proportions in the region, as chaos, legal impunity, and conflict pervade communities.
In this environment of social upheaval, the provision of quality health services is virtually impossible. A country representative of the UNFPA has asserted that “every hour of every day in DRC, four women die from complications of pregnancy and labor, and for every women who dies, between 20 and 30 have serious complications, such as obstetric fistula (IRIN, “DRC: Lowering maternal mortality rates is a tough bet,” 2009). There is some dispute over the exact rate of maternal mortality1, with the official rate declining from a high of over 1,000 to a current rate of 540 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. However, on-the-ground experts still estimate that the maternal mortality rate remains as high as 1,100 per 100,000 live births. Even in areas without open conflict, health facilities are crippled by routine power cuts, non-functioning equipment, and staff and drug shortages. A woman’s chance of dying in childbirth in the DRC is one in 24, and even women who actively seek care at facilities are too often turned away because of their inability to pay for services.
In addition to the many structural problems in the DRC are cultural norms that contribute to maternal mortality. Early marriage, lack of access to and knowledge of contraception, and rape also contribute to a higher risk of maternal mortality for the DRC’s mothers. About a decade ago, the government did establish a Women and Children’s Health Ministry. The goal was to reduce maternal mortality rates by two thirds2. Depending on which statistics one examines, progress towards this goal has either stalled or is nearing its initial goal3. These discrepancies are difficult to reconcile.
Sadly, the paucity of health services for women in the DRC, under different political circumstances, could be easily addressed. The country is one of the wealthiest in the world in terms of natural resources; the phone you use was most likely made from minerals extracted in the Congo. Corruption, illegal trading and poor regulation of mining industries have left the nation impoverished, as profits are siphoned off by a small cadre of elite officials. In 2011, just 5% of the country’s budget went to health care provision, a dismal number given the extraordinary need4.
- WHO ↩
- CEDAW 2004 36 ↩
- PDF of details on the official estimates and challenges ↩
- Guardian, “Congo’s maternal mortality rate exacerbated by poverty,” 2012 ↩