By Catherine Ntabadde Makumbi, Communication Specialist, UNICEF Uganda, July 2015
Religious leaders in Uganda have committed to mobilize individuals and communities across the country to take action to improve maternal and child survival.
At a national event in Kampala on July 23rd, the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), Ministry of Health, GAVI and UNICEF convened more than 500 religious leaders across the country to commit to use their influence among the population to end reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent deaths.
Uganda’s President H.E Yoweri Kaguta Museveni honoured the occasion, pledging his support with a strong warning to saboteurs of immunization campaigns whom he referred to as “murderers”. He called on the Police and Resident District Commissioners to arrest individuals and sects sabotaging such programmes.
Currently in Uganda, 18 women die every day due to pregnancy-related complications with direct causes of death including haemorrhage (42%), labour (22%) and unsafe abortion (11%), and indirect causes of death including malaria (36%), anaemia (11%) and HIV/AIDS (7%). While good antenatal care can prevent up to one quarter of maternal deaths presently only 48% of pregnant women in Uganda receive the recommended minimum of four ante-natal care visits.
With regard to newborn health, Uganda’s neonatal mortality rate has remained relatively static at 27 per 1,000 live births, which represents nearly one half of all deaths in the first year of life (56 deaths per 1,000 live births). With the under-five mortality rate standing at 90 deaths per 1,000 live births, malaria, diarrhoea and infections like HIV account for more than 70% of under five deaths.
In an effort to strengthen partnership with faith-based organizations to promote an uptake of health services, the meeting oriented the religious leaders on the continuum of care using the life cycle approach to address health issues.
Calling them to action, the President urged the leaders to mobilize the masses to use latrines and wash hands after using the facility saying these are critical for Ugandans to becoming healthy.
He educated the religious leaders about good nutrition practices revealing that Ugandans do not know the importance of a balanced diet, throwing the audience into laughter when he mentioned that one can even find a parish chief who is stunted.
“Ugandans do not know the right amount of calories, proteins and fats their bodies need each day. You find the parish chief stunted, the sub county chief also stunted. Who will help the poor villagers?” President Museveni asked.
“When a child is not well fed when still inside its mother’s womb, it interferes with their brain development. And this will affect them all their life,” he noted.
The President asked the Ministry of Health to equip the religious leaders with vital information on healthy living to enable them to pass it onto their communities.
Attesting to the fundamental role of religious leaders, he noted that because of the useful health tips he received from places of worship, he will be able to celebrate 71 years of age in September this year.
For their part, the religious leaders asked Government to increase the number of health workers and essential medicines in health facilities.
Sheikh Juma Chuku from Arua District said, “In some health facilities, women deliver under candlelight because there is no electricity. You go to a health facility but you are referred to a clinic where the critical medicine needed is sold. Clinics have now become referrals.”
Msg. John Baptist Kawuta of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda lamented the lack of ambulances to transport expectant mothers to health facilities in the country as a reason for the number of babies and women who die due to pregnancy-related complications.
The Director General of Health Services, Dr. Jane Aceng, presented on the country’s progress, achievements and areas that need focus in the health sector. She noted that the religious leaders have several platforms which can be used to change behaviours of Ugandans stating that some of the poor health practices in the country result from Ugandans not practicing the right behaviours.
Noreen Prendeville, UNICEF’s Deputy Representative to Uganda, explained that the religious leaders, who are among the most influential in society, are in a position to create a Uganda where no woman or her child dies unnecessarily.
“Employing the language and approaches that resonate with the cultures and beliefs of the communities, you are in a position to revolutionize the state of maternal and child health in Uganda,” she stated.
The Archbishop of Uganda, His Grace the Most Rev. Bishop Stanley Ntagali, who also doubles as chairperson of IRCU, committed to implement the resolutions of the meeting into action noting that it is incumbent upon religious leaders to do more to save children’s and mother’s lives across the country.