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Maternal Instinct: Indian Women Take on a Corrupt Medical System

A group of 40 volunteers is cracking down on the corrupt medical system in India and taking a stand against the country’s soaring rate of maternal deaths.

Prenatal care at government-run medical facilities is supposed to be free of charge, but as Monika Singh discovered, not every woman is aware of this, and some doctors are more than willing to exploit their ignorance.

“Why are you charging for medicine? It’s supposed to be free for pregnant women in a government hospital,” challenged Singh when a doctor tried to make an ill mother-to-be pay for her medicine.

Armed with Nokia phones and a list of codes, Singh and fellow volunteers routinely visit a number of villages, interviewing expecting and new mothers and families. Using simple numeric codes, interviewees can text the volunteer’s details of their pregnancy and related care. For example, texting the number 25 means no ambulance was available when needed.

Cases of women being turned away from hospitals, women being extorted and forced to bribe their way to treatment, and even cases of women dying on the way to the hospital after being denied treatment at multiple clinics are just a few of the examples of the rampant corruption of the Indian medical system.

An estimated 50,000 women in India die each year from pregnancy-related causes, accounting for 17 percent of global maternal deaths each year. While there are countries with much higher rates of maternal death, the sheer volume of annual maternal deaths is unprecedented.

Aside from malnutrition and a lack of enforcement of laws meant to protect expecting mothers, many women say they are too afraid to pursue their rights, even when they know them. “They don’t have the courage to pursue their rights proactively. That’s the challenge,” said Singh. But the presence of volunteers is encouraging more women to speak out about the injustices they have faced.

Improvements have been seen, however, since Singh and her fellow volunteers took to the streets. Working with the End Maternal Mortality Now (EndMMNow) scheme, the volunteers say it is now the doctors who are afraid of them, not the other way around.

“The workers fear these volunteers. They’re afraid they will report a case about them, so now they do their jobs properly,” said Arpana Choudhury, who follows up on reported cases.

The EndMMNow program compiles the reports that they receive to create an interactive map, clearly showing areas needing the most urgent attention, hoping that a clear depiction of the need for reform will prompt much-needed government attention.

Gina Lehner

Sources: The Guardian, WHO
Photo: Flickr