By Christina Sturdivant Sani, Special to the AFRO
“This is an important initiative that we should all support and get behind,” tweeted rapper Common on April 17, in support of the first-ever Black Maternal Health Week.
From April 11-17, hundreds of people convened in venues across the country and took to social media to raise awareness about the disproportionate challenges that Black women face when bringing life into the world.
“It was about highlighting for people the role of racism, discrimination, and unequal treatment in the variety of systems that influence our lives and how that impacts maternal health outcomes,” Elizabeth Dawes Gay, chair of the steering committee for Black Mamas Matter Alliance, told the AFRO.
The alliance organized the weeklong summit that featured a series of webinars which explored topics like the unique challenges facing African immigrant and undocumented women. Meanwhile, on-the-ground events took place in California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, and Maryland. In Baltimore, participants gathered for workshops on creating sacred spaces for birth and practicing yoga during pregnancy. Folks in Baltimore also screened the documentary film “Death by Delivery,” which was followed by a panel discussion with maternity care professionals.
Black women live in a society where they aren’t valued, Gay said. “We’re constantly navigating a society and various systems that don’t have us in mind, that weren’t designed for us, and that sometimes seek to actively harm us.” These situations cause Black women to experience mental, physical and emotional trauma at higher rates in their everyday lives than their White counterparts.
And when Black women become pregnant, some healthcare professionals don’t take their concerns seriously. Monifa Bandele, vice president of maternal justice programs at MomsRising—which supported the maternal health week—put it this way: “Black women are either hyper focused on, like followed in stores, or completely invisible in certain spaces—and the hospital is one of the places where Black women feel invisible.”
Senator Kamala Harris, of California, tweeted a CDC statistic that Black women are 243 percent more likely than their White counterparts to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes. Harris introduced a resolution officially designating the week as Black Maternal Health Week. It was introduced to the House by California Congresswoman Alma Adams.
And it’s not just Black women who are dying at alarming rates. Black infants are over two times more likely to die in their first year of life than White infants, according to a black paper, which was released by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. The black paper sets a standard for the holistic care for Black women that’s culturally informed, patient-led, provides connections to social services, and fosters resilience, among other factors.
While Gay said campaign organizers would love an overnight difference for Black women, “realistically that’s not going to happen—we’re going to see racial disparities in the data next year.” But they are prepared to “keep exploring possibilities for change and solutions until we see that drastic decline that we’re looking for.”
That’s why Black Maternal Health Week needs to be an annual occasion, said Bandele. “It’s a way to come together and amplify the voices of Black women to policy makers who we want to make sure are listening and paying attention to this issue.”