ARUSHA – Health ministers of the East African Community (EAC) member states have come under attack for backtracking on a proposed sexual and reproductive health rights strategy at the expense of lives of thousands of mothers and babies in the five-nation grouping.
Participants at the just-concluded EAC multisectoral stakeholders’ consultative meeting at Impala Hotel in Arusha, Tanzania, blamed the region’s Health ministers for ruining the efforts and finances invested in drafting the comprehensive document titled ‘East African Community Strategy on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights’.
The strongest condemnation came from East African Legislative Assembly MP, Lydia Wanyoto Mutende (Uganda), during her remarks at the closing ceremony of the three-day meeting attended by delegates from all partner states; Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
EAC Health ministers penned the strategy in September last year, only to withdraw their signatures in March for fears that gays and their sympathisers could take advantage of the document and consider homosexuality legal among the member states.
The ministers indicated the need to revisit the name of the document.
“The issue of homosexuality does not arise at all because nowhere among the partner states’ national laws is homosexuality legally recognised. The strategy does not fall outside the legal frameworks that are in place in any of the five nations,” said Wanyoto, who also promised the meeting that EALA will put the ministers to task over the issue in September.
She said that the ministers had no valid basis to withdraw their endorsement of the strategy because “the strategy wouldn’t in anyway recognise homosexuality contrary to national legislations. And if that was the only problem, why couldn’t they outline the very rights that we are talking about so that it becomes clearer (to them) that homosexuality rights are excluded?”
Wanyoto noted some of the rights that the document talks about as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – heavily condemned by health experts and human rights activists –, lack of maternity theatres, and access to delivery services, among others.
“How many more mothers and babies should die so that the strategy comes into force?” she wondered.
The issue was one of the most controversial points in the meeting, with the Kenyan delegation particularly enraged by the ministers’ reluctance.
Incidentally, the stalled strategy was one of the three main documents that participants debated throughout the deliberations, the others being the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights and the AU Strategy on Reproductive Health.
But speakers insisted that EAC must be more guided by its own strategy, with the other documents only serving a supplementary role.
The Rwandan delegation at the meeting, led by MP Ezechias Rwabuhihi, also criticised the ministers’ decision.
“Why should ministers find the issue of homosexuals more urgent than the need to stop avoidable infant and maternal deaths?” asked the former Health minister.
“In fact, one would want to believe that they are just trying to run away from their responsibilities.”
“It’s not only unacceptable but criminal for the people responsible to look on as women continue to die on hospital beds because of lack of a clear mechanism on blood transfusion,” he went on to say.
The other Rwandan legislator on the delegation, Liberata Irambona, said the ministers had no way out as long as they continued to cite fears of homosexuality as the reason for their decision.