Maternal mortality among women of African origin is “alarmingly high”, both in absolute terms and when compared to non-black and non-indigenous women in the region, according to a new report by the UN Population Fund reviewing nine countries in the Americas.
The study drew on data from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, the US and Uruguay.
“Structural racism and sexism are evident in maternal health disparities that exist across income levels and national and regional borders,” the report said.
The disparities are sharpest in the US, where non-Hispanic African-American women and girls are three times more likely to die while pregnant or within six weeks of giving birth than the country's non-Hispanic white women.
Black women are also 2.5 times more probable than white women to die in childbirth in Surinam, and 1.6 times more likely in Brazil and Colombia.
High maternal mortality among black women in the Americas is often attributed to “their individual failure to seek timely treatment, poor lifestyle choices or hereditary predispositions”, the UNFPA said.
But the UN's sexual and reproductive health agency “categorically refutes these misconceptions”, instead linking such discrepancies to a “systemic and historical pattern of racist abuse in the health sector” across North, Central and South America.
“The scourge of racism continues for black women and girls in the Americas, many of whom are descendants of the victims of enslavement,” UNFPA executive director Natalia Kanem said in a statement.
“Too often, Afrodescendent women and girls are abused and mistreated, their needs are not taken seriously, and their families are shattered by the preventable death of a loved one during childbirth.”
The region's black women and girls “are disadvantaged before, during and after pregnancy”, the report stated, with UNFPA pointing in particular to the prejudices that persist in medical education.
For example, black women in labour are more often deprived of anaesthesia on the false pretext they are less sensitive to pain, or refused painkillers because they are seen to be more likely than white women to become addicted, the report said.
It also slammed “verbal and physical abuse” by healthcare staff.
As a result, black women face increased complications during pregnancy and delayed health interventions, “which too often result in death”, the report said.