Health rights activists in Uganda have hailed a supreme court ruling that the constitutional court must hear a petition on whether the government is liable for failing to provide decent maternal health services.
In a unanimous decision, the constitutional court was found to have wrongfully dismissed a 2012 petition that argued the Uganda government should be held liable for failure to provide sound maternity services, a shortcoming that claims the lives of an estimated 16 Ugandan women a day. The petition was filed by health campaigners and led by the Center for Health Human Rights and Development (Cehurd).
The case related to Sylvia Nalubowa, who in 2009 died at Mityana hospital, a government facility in central Uganda, following an obstructed labour.
Fifteen months later, Jennifer Anguko, a local government councillor, died in Arua regional referral hospital in north-west Uganda. She also suffered an obstructed labour.
In both cases, there were reports that medical staff had demanded money before attending to the women and neglected their duties.
Activists teamed up with the families of Nalubowa and Anguko to file a suit in Uganda’s constitutional court. Among other things, they sought a declaration that, by failing to give these women basic maternal healthcare, the government had violated their right to life as enshrined in the Uganda Constitution.
When the case opened, the attorney general argued that, under the doctrine of separation of powers, the judiciary had no right to dictate to the executive on matters related to budget allocation and service delivery. The constitutional court agreed with the government and dismissed the petition.
The petitioners then appealed to the supreme court, the highest in the country.
“This is a very, very, very significant judgment. It is a very important victory for people especially in advancement of economic and social rights,” said Peter Walubiri, a leading Ugandan constitutional lawyer.
“I had faith in our court because if we had lost this petition, it would have meant that courts would never inquire into the acts or omissions of government, especially on economic and social rights.”
Moses Mulondo, the executive director of Cehurd, said: “The constitutional court had set a terrible precedent.”
Mulondo suggested the constitutional court judges had failed to realise the power vested in them by the national charter.
“Our courts are unpredictable, but for us it was going to be a very big disappointment if we didn’t get a judgment like we have got from the supreme court,” he added.
Asia Russell, executive director of the Health Global Access project, referred to the fact that thousands of Ugandan women unnecessarily died annually because of “government refusal” to prioritise health sector funding.
“This ruling by the supreme court is a crucial first step forward in demanding government actability and stopping the needless death of pregnant Ugandan women,” said Russell, who attended Friday’s court session.
She said the ruling would provide much needed impetus to people demanding that the government expands the health workforce and improves its health centres so that women like Nalubowa and Anguko do not have die for trying to give life.