03/15/2012 08:23 pm ET

Zimbabwe Decides To Make Maternal Healthcare Free

At a news conference today, Zimbabwe's finance minister Tendai Biti announced that because of over half a billion dollars pledged by donors, pregnant women will soon be able to access free maternal healthcare in the country's public health institutions, reports Radio VOP.

This is welcome news for a country that has one of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world.

According to the Zimbabwe Maternal And Perinatal Mortality Survey conducted in 2007, 26,000 to 84,000 women suffer from disabilities caused by complications during pregnancy and childbirth each year.

"The statistics are that 790 out of 100,000 mothers are dying [at birth] and that's genocide," Biti said.

There are, of course, many factors contributing to these high figures of maternal death and injury, including HIV/AIDS, food shortages, international isolation and a dramatic decline in the quality of primary health care services in the last decade.

However, clinical fees has remained an issue at the forefront of Zimbabwe's struggle to improve maternal healthcare.

It costs, for instance, between 10 and 50 dollars to deliver a baby in an urban public facility and this has kept even the most basic services out of reach of the country's poorest.

"[It is] concerning when there are user fees in place for antenatal consultations, deliveries and referrals, making it unaffordable for many women to access these -- often life-saving -- services in public health clinics and district hospitals," said Mari Carmen Viñoles, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières in Zimbabwe.

Not only do the fees deter many poor rural women from seeking medical assistance, but those who fail to settle their debts are often 'unlawfully' detained in hospitals and clinics, reports Radio VOP.

In October 2010, deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe told the Zimbabwean Parliament that since giving birth is a "national duty", women "should not be made to pay maternity fees".

That same month, the government launched the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa and the related Zimbabwe Health Sector Investment Case which called for a 700-million-dollar investment to improve healthcare and to provide access to health services to the poorest citizens. The plan was backed by the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organization.

Khupe raised US$100 million specifically for the accelerated reduction of pregnancy-related deaths and complications. However, the money -- lying idle in a bank -- has not yet touched the people who need it most.

"The Ministry of Health will announce a date in which these fees will be scrapped in the not too distant future, very soon," Biti said at the news conference.