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By Hazel Katherine Larkin

Last Friday (February 19th), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade held an NGO Forum entitled ‘The United Nations Human Rights Council: Ten Years On’. One of the speakers, Ambassador Patricia O’Brien Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, mentioned child and infant mortality in the under-fives.  Last year, according to UN figures, 5.9million children died before their fifth birthdays. That equates to 16,000 every day. Ambassador O’Brien spoke of the UN’s commitment to changing that statistic, and how a human rights approach to tackling this problem is imperative.

Listening to this I started to wonder about human rights in childbirth (which are an actual thing, even though you are likely to have those rights ignored in Ireland) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  These days, CEDAW is being interpreted to include gender-based violence as a form of discrimination. There is a huge connection between human rights in childbirth and positive mental and physical health outcomes for mothers and children. In this regard, Ireland needs to hang her head in shame in this regard because women’s rights, women’s rights in childbirth – which are specifically recognised and referred to by the United Nations – are ignored.

The recent Maternity Strategy and the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution are testament to this attitude to women and birth and babies. In looking at eliminating unnecessary deaths in those under five, states – such as Ireland – need to look at their facilitation of iatrogenic harm in the ante-natal, peri-natal and post-natal periods. States also need to look at how they actively promote breastfeeding and other practices which evidence shows promote better health outcomes for mothers and babies.

While it is true that most of the nearly six-million babies who die before they turn five are born in Africa, babies die in Ireland, too. Children die of preventable harm and diseases before they turn five in this country as well. (It must be noted that children in the Travelling and Roma communities are even more likely to die than those in the settled communities.) There is a staggering, cold indifference and disregard for pregnant and birthing women in Ireland. The stories collected and collated by organisations such as AIMSI, the HBA are testament to this. As are the birth trauma stories heard by women who specialise in this area. I’ve heard my fair share as a researcher, a doula and a facilitator of workshops for women.

The rhetoric around birth in Ireland is that if mother and baby are alive at the end of the process, it was a good birth. Women who wish to process their negative experiences, women who want to talk about their birth traumas, women who need to have their suffering – psychological and physical – in the arena of pregnancy and childbirth validated and borne witness to, are silenced. They are scorned, they are patronised. They are also, on occasion, vilified for speaking out about the damage they suffered.

If we are ever to get serious about protecting and promoting the health and well-being of mothers and babies in Ireland, we need to take a cold hard look at where we’re going wrong. Government agencies and departments need to be a little less self-congratulatory and a little more willing to really listen to women’s experiences in pregnancy and childbirth. Until that happens, we will continue to contribute to the numbers of children who die of avoidable or preventable causes.

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