"I cannot go to a gynaecologist. If I do I'll have problems with my husband," says a pregnant Aicha. Like her, many Muslim women in Burundi are not allowed to be treated by male doctors. It is forbidden. This means that in a country with only three female gynaecologists, access to specialized healthcare for Muslim women is limited.
By Marie-Claire Ndikumana, Bujumbura
Muslims make up 13 percent of the population in Burundi. Most of them are traders, originally from the Middle East, Senegal and Tanzania. Their economic integration may be quite a success, but Muslim women in the country are struggling when it comes to health care. They say their faith forbids them from being treated by a male doctor.
Touched by another man
Aicha, a young shopkeeper, must always be accompanied by her husband, Mohamed Issa, for routine check-ups or any other medical treatment.
“I cannot accept the fact that my wife goes alone to the hospital," says Issa. "I cannot stand the idea of my wife being touched by another man, not even a doctor."
A Muslim religious leader, who prefers anonymity, says it is a universal law: their faith forbids women from being treated by male doctors. What's more, “women can only be treated by Muslim women”, he says, though adds that in the case of Burundi, where female doctors are few, non-Muslim female doctors are accepted; a male doctor can intervene only in the event of medical complications. "But then the husband needs to be present,” he says.
In the whole of Burundi, there are reportedly only 18 gynaecologists – and just three are female. One of them, who wished to remain anonymous, says that she is always overbooked and that most of her patients are Muslim.
But not every Muslim woman can afford to consult a private gynaecologist. A cosultation costs around 30,000 Burundian francs, or 17 euros. The average yearly salary for a woman is 480 euros. Hospital care is free, but getting it means having to be accompanied by a husband. If that's not possible, a woman must stay at home, which increases risks considerably.
The death rate of pregnant women in Burundi was estimated at 620 per 100,000 births in 2007. The government’s objective is to reduce this amount to 200 by 2015.
Aicha is not without worries. For her an appointment with one of the three women gynaecologists is very expensive. But sometimes she has no choice. The Burundian government has implemented a policy of free care for pregnant women, but only in public hospitals where most doctors are men.
"I don't know how long I can live with these religious prescriptions,” says Aisha. “It would be easy to go to the nearest hospital. But it is very hard to convince my husband.""
While waiting for the situation to improve, Aicha and many other Muslim women can only count on themselves to convince their husbands to change their attitude.
This may take some time. Aicha's husband, for one, keeps saying: “I find it shameful to watch a gynaecologist touch my wife, especially certain hidden parts of her body. I can’t accept it.”