Birth justice for African women means an end to colonialism

The following presentation was given by Ayesha Fleary, Director of Information and Education for the All African People’s Development and Empowerment Project (AAPDEP) in Oakland, California on April 21, 2012 during a birth justice fair which contributes to the work of AAPDEP in Sierra Leone (AAPDEP-SL).
I first want to thank the members of Decolonize Pregnancy Birth and Parenting Caucus for putting this fair together in order to raise awareness of the issue of infant and maternal mortality in Oakland and to connect that to the work of AAPDEP’s infant and maternal project in Sierra Leone.
Over the last few weeks we have been touring Nurse Midwife Mary Koroma, who is the Director of AAPDEP-SL.
She is a great organizer who has made a significant impact in transforming birth outcomes of African women and babies in her native Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone is a country that has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, with one in eight women dying in childbirth.
Due to the holistic approach of the work of AAPDEP-SL, these rates have decreased in the western part of the country where there are AAPDEP branches and AAPDEP trained traditional birth attendants.
During Koroma’s Oakland presentations at the Niebyl Proctor Marxist library on Wednesday, and here at the Uhuru House on Thursday, she reported on the significant mineral wealth of Sierra Leone and the major contradiction of having those minerals exported from the country, with the resources gained from the removal of these minerals benefitting foreign nations and corporations.
She went on to explain that because of this, it is understood that the poverty and poor conditions within Sierra Leone have been imposed and is a direct result of a capitalist system whose existence is based on continuing the colonial conditions that render African people powerless to defend their right to their resources.
It is in this vein that Nurse Midwife Koroma saw it fit to implement community programs with the main goal to inspire community self-reliance, thereby empowering the community and exposing that contradiction in the eyes of the people.
This allows the people to see that if they can build significant programs with little to no resources, why is it that their government or the NGO organizations who make millions, not use those resources to improve these conditions.
Koroma gave powerful presentations and I’m sorry that many of you in this room today were not able to experience them.
Connecting the plight of Africans in Sierra Leone to the plight of Africans all over the world
It is these stark contradictions, which is a result of colonialism, which allows us to connect the plight of African women and babies in Sierra Leone to the plight of African women and babies all over the world.
Even in the United States, one of the most developed countries in the world, African women and babies are more likely to die than any other racial group.
Black women make up 12 percent of U.S. population, however we are 50 percent of all maternal deaths.
In New York, African women are eight times more likely than white women to die in childbirth, which is equal to 79 in every 100,000.
In Milwaukee, 141 African babies will die per every 100,000 live births when compared to 54 out of 100,000 for white babies.
As a matter of fact, in a Milwaukee neighborhood, the rate at which African babies die is higher than in Botswana.
In California, 46.8 of every 100,000 live births ended in death to the mother or child when compared to 14.6 of every 100,000 live births of white women.
Why is this happening?
Some say that African women don’t have preterm care, or access to health care is limited. The fact is that we do get prenatal care.
Others say it’s because we don’t have money. However, even when individual African women enjoy a higher socio-economic status, they still die at three times the rates of white women who haven’t graduated high school.
So what could it be if it’s not access or economics?
The answer is colonialism, overall, and its byproducts which equate to a compounded health assault, which results to stress from living as oppressed people within a colonial system.
African people were kidnapped from our homeland and forced to work in North America, the Caribbean, South and Central America and Europe for hundreds of years, and subjected to some of the worst conditions on the planet.
Even when we won freedom from slavery outright, our existence still went toward building white wealth.
Any attempt that was made to build our own wealth was destroyed by the white colonial oppressors.
African women were even used as wet (breastfeeding) nurses for their oppressor, ensuring the health of white babies, all the while experiencing extreme mortality rates within our own communities.
This lets us know that our value as African people in this system is to only be workers for the oppressor and ensuring their survival.
Outside of that, our presence is not welcomed.
Today, we see our communities underdeveloped, our access to economic development undermined and our communities under constant police containment.
This is what it means to be colonized in one of the richest countries in the world.
African people all over the world experience this even if we are the majority, because the systems of colonial oppression are a result of capitalism, which has its foundation in the enslavement of African people.
Colonization is when black women are subjected to low level care in these medical or natural birthing institutions, or when we have to be concerned that if we have a son, he could possibly be murdered before his 18th birthday.
Colonialism is when black mothers are forced to survive without their mates or sons because of a criminal injustice system that incarcerates black men at higher rates than any other group, and they do longer sentences for non-violent crimes.
Colonialism is when a black mother is forced to go days without food because her government bids away her resources to parasitic entities, which would otherwise ensure food is grown in every part of her country.
These are the colonial conditions that contribute to the stress and early death of our people.
Oftentimes, a solution that is given to combat these grave statistics is to return to traditional birth practices.
The fact is that in many places throughout the world, African babies and mothers have no other form of birthing care. They have already been engaged in traditional birth practices and the outcomes are still extreme, so this cannot be the solution.
We must deal with the root cause of our problems, which is colonialism
We have to be practical about our approach and engage in a real political analysis that challenges the current social system, not just bits and pieces, but the whole thing, calling for its destruction.
Premature birth, low birth weight babies, excessive maternal bleeding, maternal hypertension, miscarriages, limited access to good food and gestational diabetes are some of the major problems we face.
These are all realities that will not go away until we deal with the root cause, which is colonialism.
Sure, the statistics can improve and have improved, however, even if our death rates drop in a certain area, it still remains higher than everyone else, wherever we are.
Colonialism is the common system that contributes to the disempowerment, impoverishment and marginalization of us as a people.
This system defines our lives as oppressed people and it is the oppressor group that upholds these systems.
The solutions to overturn these outcomes cannot be summed up to a singular approach to care.
We should improve the care but understand that the work we have to do is to eliminate the conditions Africans are subjected to as a colonized people.
Once we end this colonial relationship, then we will see birth outcomes equal to or surpass that of everyone else.
If the African continent is the richest on the planet and African women and children are dying at these high rates, what hope can we have for African women and babies in the United States?
So, as we watch the video that highlights the work of AAPDEP in Sierra Leone, I want you to understand that all of these projects being instituted are not only around the eradication of high infant and maternal death in the country, but to also ensure the future of African people as a whole.
Nurse Mary is currently on tour, please visit to track our progress and visit to find out more about AAPDEP.
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