In 2010, Shanti Devi, who was living in rural India in a compound with 30 families, died in childbirth.
Regional director of Amnesty International in South Asia Jameen Kaur demanded that the government file a maternal death audit. The Indian government responded that there were no maternal deaths in January, but Kaur knew for a fact that Shanti passed away giving birth.
And on Thursday she found herself in Myron Taylor Hall, speaking on the role of litigation in ensuring women’s reproductive rights in India to a room packed with Cornell students who waited to hear about the legal progress that is being made in a country nearly 10 thousand miles away.
Devi’s case was tried in 2010, who died in childbirth because she did not have access to medical treatment as they pertained to her reproductive rights, according to Kaur.
Kaur primarily focuses on cases pertaining to the poor and, more specifically, poor women. Her focus on impoverished women naturally segued into a career in reproductive rights. In order to help her audience understand the death and the subsequent case about Shanti Devi, Kaur first detailed India’s standing in regards to marriages and pregnancies.
Kaur pointed out that right now “India is seeing forced sterilization on a mass scale.”
While India touts many laws and policies that further the cause of equality, the implementation is so poor, and sometimes intentionally so, that they become irrelevant, Kaur said.
Kaur then moved to discuss the crux of the legal argument, which is the sheer amount of women who die every year while giving birth or shortly thereafter.
“The latest figures suggest that in one year they had 117,000 maternal deaths, that is 25 percent of the world’s maternal death,” Kaur said, asking the audience to imagine that we saw four hundred fully packed Boeing 747 planes, and then watching them fall into the sea every summer.
Kaur does not believe that it is the doctors in India who are responsible for the deaths and the continuous progression of the number of maternal deaths, but rather, it is the responsibility of the government who has had an anemic response to the plight of these women.
“India’s government only spends 0.9 percent of their GDP on health care, meaning that respective to GDP, India expends less on healthcare than nearly every other nation,” she said.
Kaur pointed out that “lack of timely transport is what causes delays when women try to get medical help, and it leads to maternal death.”
When asked if there are more deaths than those reported — despite the fact that those numbers are profoundly high — Kaur responded without any hesitation.
“Without a doubt,” she said. “Maternal deaths are often not reported; additionally, often most pregnancies are not registered, so the reported numbers are most likely much lower than the actual numbers.”
Kaur said that the international system has also taken an interest in the Indian maternal death epidemic.
Kaur cited a UN Special Rapporteur that asserts that there remains a “yawning gulf between … commendable maternal mortality policies and their urgent, focused, sustained, systematic and effective implementation.”
At the end of the lecture, a slow clap swelled into a round of applause for Jameen Kaur and her work on behalf of a very vulnerable population.
“With hope you invest in something because of your convictions,” Kaur concluded. “I do not make false promises or overly raise expectations, but I still follow through with my convictions.”