EDITORIAL: A step forward

New provisions in the draft of Bill on Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health will help promote gender equality and women’s empowerment

Every pregnant woman hopes for an uncomplicated pregnancy and a healthy baby. And after giving birth, every mother wants a better future for her child. But in Nepal where patriarchy persists and some laws are yet to keep pace with time, legal and social barriers have let down women when it comes to safe motherhood and reproductive health which are crucial to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Reproductive health and safe motherhood are human rights. In this context, the Ministry of Health and Population’s move of including some provisions in the draft of the Bill on Right to Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health deserves praise. At a time when women rights activists have taken exception to some provisions of the new constitution saying they are discriminatory; some features of the Bill on Right to Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health are certainly forward-looking. We hope other concerns raised by women activists in relation to some constitutional provisions will be addressed gradually.

The bill, registered in Parliament on Tuesday, proposes that a newborn will be entitled to a birth certificate even if the mother decides not to disclose the identity of the child’s father. That the birth certificates need not mention father’s name will come as a big relief, especially for single mothers. Currently, the names of both the parents must be mentioned in birth certificates. Similarly, the draft bill states that a working mother should be entitled to a paid leave of 98 days during the time of delivery and that the leave can be extended by a month upon doctor’s recommendation. This will mean a leave of around 128 days in total, six weeks more than what the current law provides for. The bill also bars the forceful use of contraceptives or family planning measures – again one step forward in regards to upholding reproductive health.

Laws should be dynamic and change with times. Some existing legal provisions have not only been a big letdown for women, they also pose a threat to the future of children whose fathers are not identified. A birth certificate in mother’s name will mean a hassle-free life for the concerned mother, and she can utilise her time that she would have otherwise spent to deal with legal complexities for the child’s health and his/her future. Similarly, an extended leave for a new mother would mean she would ensure ample time and the comfort zone to take care of the child, including exclusive breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is not only crucial for the infant’s good health but also contributes to the well-being of mothers. Ensuring the right to safe motherhood and reproductive health squarely means upholding women’s right to equality. These all are important features as they are central to gender equality, women’s empowerment, reducing poverty and achieving sustainable development. But we must not forget that while legal frameworks are crucial to counter deeply rooted gender-based discrimination, there is also an urgent need to change mindsets. While the political will is fundamental to enforce the laws, social and other hidden barriers to women’s empowerment can be overcome only through awareness campaigns. Implementation of laws and awareness will be the key.

No health services

Right to health services is one of the fundamental rights of citizens wherever they live in. After the country adopted federalism under the new constitution, the district level hospitals and health centres come under the jurisdiction of local governments. The local governments should be able to manage the local health facilities so that the people get basic health services within their doorsteps. In spite of more than one year since the local level elections were held the district level hospitals are not functioning as per the new provision.

A report from Dhankuta says the district hospital has been adversely affected after three permanent and three contract doctors left the hospital at once. All services available in the hospital, including NSCU, video X-ray and ECG, have now been halted due to the transfer of all doctors by the federal government without consulting the local government. People are now compelled to travel to Morang even for minor medical checkups. A health facility cannot remain out of order even for an hour for want of doctors. The Dhankuta Municipality must do needful to address this problem.