On Saturday, 17 March, 2017, Jaitun—commonly referred to as ‘Amma’—breathed her last breath in the stillness of the night; her body lay on a scrap of mud floor outside a shop, this scrap of floor for which she paid Rs 1,500 a month as rent.
Jaitun ought to have been a household name. It was her perseverance for justice, her fight that led to a historic judgment holding the Indian government accountable for the lack of delivery on a number of its legally-binding obligations such as reproductive health care and the right to food.
Among her many identities—she was a woman with a razor-sharp wit and humour and never-ending reserves of courage and passion — Jaitun was a woman with no formal education, who for the past 20 years with her daughter Fatima, was homeless. She lived near the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin. However, Jaitun had not always been homeless.
Before 1988, she owned a small room in a jhuggi in the same locality, but Delhi government’s re-development plans, demolished her home. As a homeless person she faced constant harassment and intimidation to leave the area, from Delhi police and local thugs, particularly during Delhi’s ‘clean–up’ operations leading up and during the Commonwealth Games. But it was the protection of the human rights of her daughter and granddaughter and the emblematic mistreatment in their case that led Jaitun to finally reach out to the courts.
On 29 May, 2009, Jaitun daughter Fatima, who suffers from epilepsy, was denied medical care from the local hospital because she did not possess a BPL (below the poverty line) card, and was forced to give birth, under a tree, in full public view, without access to skilled health care or medical guidance. It was then that Jaitun took her quest for justice to the Delhi High Court, and with the support of the Human Rights Law Network, filed a petition to seek accountability and redressal, and to ensure non-repetition for other women and girls.
At the time of Fatima’s public delivery, India was home to the highest number of women dying during childbirth—1,17,000 maternal deaths—accounting for 25 percent of the global total. According to the World Health Organisation’s latest figures (2016), 45,000 maternal deaths take place in India ever year, which is an average of 5 women dying every hour. India’s maternal deaths now account for 17 percent of the global total, and for the last two consecutive reporting periods, India has failed to meet its Millennium Development Goals target to reduce maternal deaths. India’s spending on healthcare (1.3 percent) of its Gross Domestic Product, continues to rank as one of the lowest in the world. The Taj Mahal, it’s useful to remember, is not only a representation of undying love but also an iconic symbol of a woman who died during childbirth.
In a bid to reduce maternal and infant deaths, the government in April 2005 had launched the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). The services under the NRHM include: early registration of pregnancy before the 12th week, minimum of 4 antenatal check-ups, medical examinations such as weight, blood pressure, anaemia, identification of high-risk pregnancies and appropriate and prompt referral. None of these service guarantees had been provided to Fatima.
For the next year Jaitun fought, and she fought with unfaltering resilience in her pursuit for justice. Jaitun overcame attempts from hospital/government personnel who took her to lawyers—she was tricked into placing her thumb print to drop her case, she was not swayed by bribes to drop her case as she said what happened to her daughter ‘is also happening to many other daughters’. Her case highlighted the stark gaps in the system, and the government’s failings to deliver the schemes under the NRHM, in addition to its lack of enforcement of legally binding right to food policies and programmes, and its ultimate failing to uphold and respect the human dignity of women and girls in India.
On 4 June 2010, when the Delhi High Court granted Jaitun a landmark judgment, it became the first national-level court to hold maternal mortality a violation of a woman’s fundamental right to life and held a government accountable for the denial of basic reproductive health services (and a preventable maternal death — Jaitun’s case was clubbed together with another woman’s case — Shanti Devi, who was of poor health, faced terrible living conditions and was denied basic healthcare).
The court directed the authorities to pay compensation. ‘These petitions focus on two inalienable survival rights that form part of the right to life: the right to health (which would include the right to access and receive a minimum standard of treatment and care in public health facilities) and in particular the reproductive rights of the mother. The other right which calls for immediate protection and enforcement in the context of the poor is the right to food… for the violation of the fundamental rights of Fatima by being compelled to give birth to Alisha (new born) under a tree which is only on account of the denial of basic medical services to her under the various schemes.’
The judgment has since been used by countless lawyers and activists globally, including the Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, not only as a source of inspiration but as a solid springboard to further justice. It has also been cited as precedent in India in cases such as Premlata v. Government of NCT Delhi, Bilkis & Anr versus Govt of NCT of Delhi & Ors., and CHARM v. State of Bihar and Others C.W.J.C. No.10724/2011.
In Jaitun’s death, we have now lost an inimitable warrior for justice, but her spirit of defiance lives on.