Written by Editor-in-Chief Jodi Jacobson for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

In 2002, Alyne da Silva Pimentel, a 28-year-old Afro-Brazilian woman, died after being denied basic medical care to address complications in her pregnancy. Her death might be like any one of the other hundreds of thousands of women who die of complications of pregnancy or unsafe abortion each year worldwide, but for one thing: It was taken to court.

Maternal mortality in Brazil is high, especially for a country of its relative wealth and level of development. It is even higher among women who, like Alyne, are of Afro-descent, indigenous, and/or low-income. Alyne died of complications resulting from pregnancy after her local health center mis-diagnosed her symptoms and delayed the emergency care she needed to live.

On November 30, 2007, the Center for Reproductive Rights, with Brazilian partner Advocaci, filed Alyne da Silva Pimentel v. Brazil, brought the first ever maternal mortality case before the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Center’s petition argued that Brazil’s government violated Alyne’s rights to life, health, and legal redress, all of which are guaranteed both by Brazil’s constitution and international human rights treaties, including CEDAW. 

“Alyne’s story epitomizes Brazil’s violation of women’s human rights and failure to prevent women from dying of causes that, by the government’s own admission, are avoidable,” said Lilian Sepúlveda, the Center’s Legal Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean. “We filed this case to demand that Brazil make the necessary reforms to its public health system—and save thousands of women’s lives.”

In its brief, the Center asked the Committee to require Brazil to compensate Alyne da Silva Pimentel’s surviving family, including her 9-year-old daughter, and make the reduction of maternal mortality a high priority, including by training providers, establishing and enforcing protocols, and improving care in vulnerable communities.

This week, the case was decided in a historic decision by CEDAW, establishing that governments have a human rights obligation to guarantee that all women in their countries—regardless of income or racial background—have access to timely, non-discriminatory, and appropriate maternal health services.

“Sadly,” said a statement from CRR, “Alyne’s story is one of thousands in Brazil, and all around the world, in which women are denied, and in some cases refused, basic quality medical care to address common pregnancy complications. And the countless lives lost unnecessarily as a result mean that today’s victory can only be regarded as bittersweet.”

Nonetheless, continued the statement, “today marks the beginning of a new era. Governments can no longer disregard the fundamental rights of women like Alyne without strict accountability. And while nothing can reverse Alyne’s fate, today’s decision means that Alyne’s mother and daughter will finally see justice served—and women worldwide will benefit from the ruling issued in her name.”