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Minorities and indigenous peoples in Africa disproportionately suffer more ill-health and poorer quality of care, new global report launched as UN meets to follow up on MDGs

25 September 2013

Minorities and indigenous peoples in Africa suffer more ill-health and receive poorer quality of care, says an international human rights organisation in a new global report.

Minority Rights Group International’s (MRG) flagship report, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013, shows how decades of marginalization, poverty and displacement all contribute to inequalities experienced by minorities and indigenous communities and an inability to realise their right to health.

The report is launched to coincide with a United Nations General Assembly meeting to follow up on efforts made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

‘The failure of national health systems to account for minority and indigenous peoples’ needs in their policy and planning processes, as well as a lack of culturally appropriate health service provision, especially in the area of reproductive health, are major barriers for accessing care in Africa,’ says Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications.

The lack of attention paid by African governments on minority and indigenous health issues is particularly critical when it comes to investment of resources. The lack of health care centres in minority and indigenous areas means that patients often have to travel very long distances to get treatment.

‘Land loss, displacement and discrimination have deepened poverty among minority and indigenous communities which means that they may be unable to pay for transport or fees charged by the clinics upon arrival,’ adds Söderbergh.

Even if members of these communities do gain access to clinics, the report documents how government-run health care centres remain understaffed, and often without essential supplies and medicines.

In Uganda, for instance, sexual violence and lack of access to healthcare has increased the spread and impact of HIV/Aids among the Batwa.

Minorities like the Batwa, who traditionally depended on forest products to provide medicines and food products for the community, usually have negative perceptions of health care systems, as they often experience discrimination, which reduces the likelihood that they will seek out treatment.

‘MRG believes that everyone – regardless of their ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural background – should have the right to access appropriate care and to lead healthy lives. After all, the right to health is the most fundamental right – the right to survive,’ Söderbergh adds.

In sub-Saharan Africa, harmful cultural practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as transactional sex are major risk factors for obstetric fistula – a preventable but sometimes deadly condition for mothers that causes a hole in the birth canal caused by prolonged or obstructed pregnancy.

The East, Central and Southern African Health Community (ECSA-HC) estimates that there are approximately 3,000 new fistula cases every year in both Kenya and Tanzania, and an estimated 250,000 women in Ethiopia are living with fistula.

According to Esther Somoire, a Maasai woman activist in Kenya, girls who become pregnant before age 19 are at higher risk for fistula because their bodies are not yet fully developed for childbirth. ‘We see a higher rate of these practices in minority and marginalized communities in Kenya and across East Africa, ‘ she says.

The UN General Assembly, the MRG report recommends, should consult meaningfully with minority and indigenous communities. It must take into consideration the values and cultural norms of minorities and indigenous communities, the factors that they identify as priorities for the delivery of healthcare, and the problems and structural barriers that exist, in the formulation of a new generation of development goals after 2015.

In Namibia, a country with one of the highest tuberculosis rates in the world, an innovative mobile tuberculosis treatment which takes into account the nomadic lifestyle of the San community, has reduced the spread of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis cases through training family members how to administer drugs, how to read and record treatment cards and how to collect medical samples.

‘The report, with its focus on health inequalities, clearly shows that any post-MDGs framework is doomed to fail unless discrimination towards minorities and indigenous peoples is urgently addressed,’ reiterates Söderbergh. ‘Critical to this is the involvement of the communities themselves in the discussion and in delivery of their own healthcare.’

Notes to editors

  • Interview opportunities:
    • Carl Söderbergh, Director of Policy and Communications, Minority Rights Group International, UK – [email protected]
    • Neza Henry, Capacity Building Officer, United Organisation for Batwa Development (UOBDU), Uganda – short film produced for the launch of the report. If you use the film, please let MRG’s press office know.
    • State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 is available for free download here
    • Minority Rights Group International is the leading international human rights organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in over 50 countries.

    To arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].