Every year in Burkina Faso more than 2,000 women die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth, according to government figures. Amnesty International's report Giving Life, Risking Death (PDF) finds that many of these deaths could have been prevented if women were given timely access to adequate health care.
Most women in Burkina Faso are subordinate to the men in their lives with little or no control over key decisions such as when to seek medical care and the timing and spacing of their pregnancies despite of having equal status under Burkinabe law. Women and girls continue to be subjected to early marriages and female genital mutilation.
The Burkina Faso government, with the help of the donor community, has developed ambitious strategies that have lowered maternal death rates in some parts of the country. However, these are undermined by failures in implementation and a lack of accountability that allows medical personnel to get away with abuses, such as illegal demands for payments.
Poverty is a key contributing factor in preventable maternal death, particularly for impoverished women living in rural areas who face both financial and geographical obstacles to accessing healthcare.
In 2006, the Burkinabe government introduced a policy to subsidize 80 per cent of the cost of childbirth and making it completely free for the most impoverished women. But this policy is not well publicized, leaving it open to exploitation by corrupt medical staff. Criteria have not been elaborated to establish who qualifies for subsidized care, so costs continue to act as a barrier to accessing medical care.
The report says that unequal access to adequate health facilities, especially in rural areas; shortages of medical supplies and trained personnel; and negative or discriminatory attitudes of health workers are also preventing women from seeking care.
The authorities have responded to the report, which was sent to them in advance, by welcoming "the meticulous and important" work done by Amnesty International while stressing that the cases of misbehavior by medical personnel were "isolated" and reiterating the authorities' commitment to address the problem of maternal mortality in the country.
Amnesty International is calling on the government to expand and improve access to family planning services, to remove financial barriers to maternal healthcare services, to ensure an even distribution of health facilities and trained staff across the country and to set up a well-publicized and accessible accountability mechanism to help combat corruption and mismanagement.