Standing up for the rights of mothers in Ethiopia: ‘We finally have a voice’

Kahsa, Ethiopia

by Sarah Easter, Emergency Communications Officer, CARE Germany and CARE Austria

26 April 2024


Kahsa grabs the two long wooden sticks from her neighbour’s storage, tied together with two old linen sacks, and starts running. One of her neighbours is giving birth. Because of the conflict, this is currently the only way for them to get mothers in labour to a clinic. “We are trying our best to reduce the number of home births, but it is so difficult without an ambulance service,” says the 34-year-old.

The 3-year conflict between the central government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front continues to have a huge impact on women and girls in northern Ethiopia, despite a truce agreement in November 2022. Since the outbreak of conflict, the maternal mortality rate in the region has increased fivefold, according to a study by the Regional Health Bureau. Before, there were less than 200 maternal deaths per 100,000 births in Tigray. Now the average is 840, which is 60 times higher than the maternal mortality rate in the UK. Most deaths are due to easily preventable causes such as bleeding.

Saving mothers and newborns

Women lead in emergencies group - Ethiopia

Image: A meeting of a Women Lead in Emergencies Group in Kahsa's community. CARE/Sarah Easter

Delivering at home can lead to risks for the mother and the newborn in Kahsa’s community; there is a lack of medical transportation if things go wrong. “A woman from our village died from bleeding when she delivered her baby at home during the conflict,” remembers Kahsa.

Kahsa is a leader in her community and part of a Women Lead in Emergencies group supported by CARE and our partner in the SELAM project. The group brings together 25 women to discuss gender-related topics such as women in politics, female-led businesses, and violence against women, and to strengthen their voices in the community.

Find out more about Women Lead in Emergencies

“Even after the conflict there still are no medical transportation services. So, in one of our meetings we discussed the high numbers of home deliveries and found a solution together,” explains Kahsa. They resorted to the old traditional way of transporting patients, with two sticks and a sack for the patient to lie down on and two people to carry it. The walk to the clinic takes thirty minutes. It’s a working system, but not a replacement for adequate access to health facilities.

“This month a woman lost her baby because it was in a wrong position. I was responsible for getting the stretcher to her, but I was too late to save the baby,” remembers Kahsa. The mother of three knows first-hand why access to maternal health is so important. “My firstborn was a home delivery. I was bleeding a lot and for three days I could not stand on my own. My family had to carry me everywhere, and it took a lot of time to heal,” she says. Her second child was born in a clinic. “My baby had a wrong position, and I had an emergency operation and stayed in the clinic for three months. It saved my life and that of my child.”

Only 3% of health facilities are functional

The clinic close to Kahsa’s village is in poor condition. “The clinic was heavily damaged and only open for the last year, but it is lacking supplies. Before the SELAM project it also did not have any access to water, so the women delivering babies had to bring a 5-litre jerrican of water with them for their own treatment,” says Kahsa.

Before the conflict, 90% of mothers in Tigray received prenatal care, and more than 70% benefited from skilled deliveries, according to analysis by health experts. But only 3% of health facilities in Tigray have been fully functional since the conflict due to lack of supplies and partial or total damage to facilities. 93% of referral facilitieslack the basic supplies necessary for providing essential services for pregnant women and newborns.

Supporting women to stand up for their rights

Kahsa, Ethiopia, at a Women Lead meeting

Image: Kahsa at a Women Lead in Emergencies meeting. CARE/Sarah Easter

We need to do more for mothers. The women get pregnant and cannot access care.”

Kahsa and the women’s leadership group are trying to change things for women in their community. “I am trying to support women in my community and to encourage the group to stand up for their rights. Before we were not represented in society. Our husbands were the head and represented us. Now we are part of the decision-making. It was a taboo to speak for the community. Now we speak loudly. We finally have a voice and fight for us mothers,” concludes Kahsa.

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