White Ribbon Alliance

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Open Letter to Lord Bates on the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights

April 11, 2017
The Rt Hon. The Lord Bates
Department for International Development
United Kingdom

Dear Lord Bates,

I’m writing to you on April 11th, which is International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. We met recently at the House of Lords on International Women’s Day, where you spoke in support of investing in women and girls as the best investment in any country’s future. You kindly invited me to write to you regarding the UK’s implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which apply not just to ‘developing’ countries but to all countries, including our own.

The UK’s Department for International Development has a proud record of standing up for the reproductive health and rights of women, and has been a pioneer in supporting free maternity care in a range of countries. Given the gap left by the imminent withdrawal of US funding, these international investments are now more important than ever. Meanwhile, I know you will agree that we must also address these issues at home.

Yet within the UK, the government is reneging on its commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals when it comes to an extremely vulnerable group – pregnant migrant and refugee women, especially those who are as yet undocumented. There is now a body of evidence that the charges imposed for maternity care in the NHS on any woman who cannot prove her citizenship are acting as a deterrent to women seeking care. Groups such as Doctors of the World and Maternity Action (links below), as well as The Guardian newspaper (Amelia Gentleman’s Pregnant women without legal status 'too afraid to seek NHS care and Maeve Shearlaw’s Migrant women face £6,000 birth bill under 'health tourism' laws),are reporting that some women are so scared of being arrested and deported for bills they cannot pay that they are leaving it to the last minute to seek maternity care – at great risk to their health and that of their babies.

Still others are driven to risking birth alone. And in the vulnerable time after birth, women and their newborns are being returned – isolated and unable to communicate – to unfit accommodation without access to health care.

These are often the same women who have fled their own countries for reasons of forced early marriage, FGM, trafficking, and rape – issues which DFID is rightly addressing in those countries. Yet when they arrive in the UK it can take many years to prove an asylum claim and meanwhile women are denied decent and respectful maternity care. The issue of ‘health tourism’ is a myth when it comes to maternity care; according to a Doctors of the World report, the average length of time in the UK prior to delivery of women who attended the organisation’s maternity drop-in clinic was four and a half years.

White Ribbon Alliance advocates for the rights of all women everywhere to a safe birth, and we initiated the global Charter for Respectful Maternity Care which is based on universally recognized international instruments to which the UK and many other countries are signatories, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. DFID supports many of these basic human rights across the developing world, yet in the UK the opposite is true.

The UK’s Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has also raised concerns about the impact on women’s care from the NHS Cost Recovery Programme, and is calling for a more robust evaluation on its effects, especially in regards to the Secretary of State’s commitment to reduce significantly stillbirth and maternal mortality by 2020.

Obstetricians and gynaecologists are also part of the Docs Not Cops group, which argues that NHS workers should not be forced to police the people they treat.

White Ribbon Alliance calls upon the UK government to close the gap between its global level commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals, and the reality of what is happening now to vulnerable pregnant women, new mothers and their babies within the UK.

Best Regards,

Brigid McConville
White Ribbon Alliance

Ask Lord Bates to help all women in the UK receive the maternal
healthcare they need and deserve:

Tweet: On #IntlMHDay @WRAGlobal asks @BatesLord to help all women in the UK receive the maternal health care they need: http://bit.ly/LordBates

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