Today, the Center for Reproductive Rights and Citizens' Advocacy for Human Rights (ADVOCACI) filed a case in the United Nations against Brazil for failing to address the unacceptably high death rate of pregnant women in that country. The case, submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, revolves around a 28-year-old pregnant woman of African descent, Alyne da Silva Pimentel, who died after both a state clinic and hospital misdiagnosed her symptoms and denied her timely care. Each year in Brazil, some 4,000 women die from pregnancy-related causes, but the government refuses to treat the problem with urgency despite having the resources to prevent almost all of these deaths.
"Alyne's story epitomizes Brazil's violation of women's human rights and failure to prevent women from dying of causes that, by the government's own admission, are avoidable," said Lilian Sepúlveda, legal adviser for Latin America at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "We filed this case to demand that Brazil make the necessary reforms to its public health system-and save thousands of women's lives."
On November 11, 2002, Da Silva, six months pregnant with her second child, arrived at Belford Roxo Health Center, a state clinic just outside of Rio de Janeiro, complaining of nausea. The attending physician would not admit her, assured her she was in good health, and sent her home with vitamins and cream. She returned to the clinic on November 13, 2002 vomiting and feeling extremely ill. Five days later, she died in the municipal Hospital Geral de Nova Iguaçu after delivering a stillbirth. On multiple occasions, the clinic and hospital staff failed to follow medical standards, including those dictating that a patient in her condition be physically examined and undergo surgery immediately. Although Da Silva's family has pursued justice in Brazilian courts for four-and-half years, its claims have not yet been heard.
Da Silva's story is not an isolated one. Brazil accounts for over a quarter of Latin America's maternal deaths. Indigenous, poor, single, and Afro-descendant women are disproportionately affected. Women from the country's predominantly Afro-descendant regions face the highest risk of dying from pregnancy. Brazil could prevent 98% of these deaths at a low cost. But according to the World Bank, Brazil's maternal mortality rates are from three to ten times higher than those of countries of comparable economic status and considerably higher than those of some countries with lesser levels of economic development.
"Reducing the number of deaths among pregnant women is not only a priority for development, it is an obligation under human rights law" said Luisa Cabal, director of the Center's International Legal Program. "The Millennium Development Goals call for a reduction of the maternal mortality ratio by three-quarters, and treaty obligations call upon governments to take specific measures to guarantee women's access to reproductive health care. It's time for Brazil to do its part to achieve these goals."
The Center's petition argues that Brazil's government violated Alyne's rights to life, health, and redress in Brazilian courts, all of which are guaranteed both by Brazil's constitution and international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Center is asking the committee to call upon Brazil to compensate Da Silva's surviving family, including her 9-year-old daughter, and prioritize the reduction of maternal mortality, including by training providers, establishing and enforcing protocols, and improving care in vulnerable communities.