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Question Marks Overshadow Women’s Lives in Sudan

December 23, 2009

Photo/USAID

Forgive the shameless self promotion, but it’s relevant!  I worked on an article that was just published in Reproductive Health Matters, a British sexual and reproductive health peer-reviewed journal.  The article, “Unsafe Abortion and Abortion Care in Khartoum, Sudan,” was based on a survey done in Khartoum (the capital) in 2007 on the status of reproductive health, especially abortion.

Despite common knowledge that the state of reproductive health and rights in Sudan is a hot, hot mess, very little data actually exists to prove this.  Without data, it’s hard for programs to be designed and function successfully and, more importantly, it’s hard to get funding to do very important work.  This survey contributes new data to join the slim ranks of existent data.

Reproductive health data in Sudan is so sketchy that the maternal mortality rate is a range (and a god-awful range at that),  from about 500-2,000 women dying per 100,000 live births that happen each year.  Yikes.  This is one of the highest rates in the world.  Most people live in rural places, don’t have access to hospitals or if they do, they’re not well-equipped.  Go to this data page on Population Reference Bureau and all you’ll see is dashes in place of actual stats.  But we do know the picture is grim.

One thing our article depicts, based on new data collected, was the disturbing

Photo/Katherine Hourheld

situation around unsafe abortion in Sudan.  Abortion is legal there only to save a woman’s life or in cases of rape.  Although it is hardly accessible under these circumstances.  And odd health regulations say that only doctors, not nurses or midwives or any of the myriad community health providers most accessible to the general population, can provide this and other surgical procedures.  To boot, nurses are disbarred from prescribing contraceptives, though they can distribute them.  The status of women remains quite low.  I was shocked to read this article last week, blaming women themselves for their persistently low status. Hm.

What you have is a whole lot of confusion, inefficiency, and scads of women who are pretty much forced to hail down the nearest quack with a coat hanger before trekking 150 miles to a doctor’s clinic that offers services she can’t afford.  It’s horribly sad and it’s undermining women’s human rights.

So we have a major issue on our hands.  Let’s put the egregious human rights abuses of the civil war aside.  OK.  Now we have a country with near-endemic poverty, shoddy health infrastructure, antiquated health policies, and a very low overall level of literacy, including health literacy.  And in addition to this there are serious concerns about rights: remember the journalist prosecuted for wearing pants? Or the schoolteacher almost jailed for a teddy bear named Muhammad?

Sudanese women protest "no pants" law - photo/Time

Luckily, there are vibrant Sudanese groups on the ground working to counteract this mess.  And the Sudanese Ministry of Health is not half bad, either.  They realize that shit has hit the fan in every way possible when it comes to the ladies of their land.  They’re trying to rectify as fast as they can but progress is slow.

You may have tuned out the word “Darfur” on account of the blood curdling tragedies that continue to befall people, and especially women, there.  It’s just hard to take in large doses.  And South Sudan, the troubled southern region of the country, data there is even scarcer.  But don’t write off the powerful change that is possible in Sudan as a whole.

Real information about the state of affairs across the country for women is very much-needed.  In data we’ll find truth, and hopefully in truth we’ll find action.  And maybe President Omar al Bashir will actually be tried for war crimes one day. (BTW, he is so sassy he told the ICC that they could “eat” their arrest warrant.)

All you activists and researchers out there, don’t give up!  We need the truth, and we need it now, in the form of quantitative and qualitative information which will be the bedrock of change when it comes to women’s health and rights.

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