By Micha Green, AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor,

Access to suitable health care and hospitals is already an issue of disparity in communities of color in several United States cities, yet according to a recent WUSA9 report, it’s an even bigger problem in the District of Columbia for women seeking maternity wards.

On Oct. 18, WUSA9 released a long-form news package about the racial disparities in access to maternity wards in D.C.  How in the nation’s capital are women of color struggling to seek care and birth their babies?  Turn east of the river to Wards 7 and 8- both of which are 90 percent Black according to the U.S. Census.

D.C. is said to have the largest racial disparity in access to maternity wards. (Courtesy Photo: Black Mamas Alliance)

“When you look at communities in Wards 7 and 8, right, that are designed to have less than,” Aza Nedhari, one of the founders of Mamatoto Village, said.  Mamatoto is a community organization that assists mothers. “There are two sides of the river. You’re walking across a bridge that has two different realities.”

“You have one community that has the highest rate of, well, everything! Poverty, high school drops outs, teen parents, single parent homes, the lowest indicators of wellbeing,” Nedhari told WUSA 9. “You contrast that to the river, where their well-being is 93 percent, where the median income is six figures, where there is generally two-parent households. Where they have a Trader Joe’s in their community, compared to the bodega that is across the river.”

Recently two maternity wards closed that were at least closer to Wards 7 and 8.  In August 2017, the maternity ward at United Medical Center in Southeast closed, leaving no obstetrics ward east of the river.  Then, in October of that year Providence Hospital closed their maternity ward.

“Now no labor and delivery services exist on the east side of the city, leaving “a maternity care desert,” the D.C. chapter of the American College of Nurse-Midwives­ said, according to The Washington Post.

Yet even before the closing of those hospitals, young women such as Tanazia Matthews, the main character in the WUSA9 package, was 15 and pregnant when she had to find out the hard way about the city’s maternity desert.

“I lived in Southeast, D.C. off of Morris Road and I commuted to Northwest, Washington, D.C., for the simple fact that in D.C. we don’t have out of pay healthcare.  So I had to travel to Washington Hospital Center, which was the next closest hospital to my home,” she said.

“So my commute was probably about 45 minutes to an hour on a good day,” she said.

“No woman should have to commute an hour and a half or more to access healthcare but that’s what we find in the District,” Elizabeth Dawes Gaye said.  There are really a number of challenges and barriers that Black women are overcoming in accessing care in the District.”

The Centers for Disease Control reported that 700 women in the United Stands die from childbirth and over half are preventable.  According to WUSA9, for every 13 White women, 44 Black women die from pregnancy related issues.

While some reports from the District’s Department of Health determine the District to be eighth and ninth in the country for a maternal health crisis, according to WUSA9, other research said the nation’s capital is actually the worst in the United States.

In D.C.’s African-American community 17 of the 18 women who died from pregnancy related causes from 2012 to 2016 were Black.  The other woman was Hispanic.

Community organizations are working to bring maternal healthcare in maternity deserts. Howard University is partnering with United Health Care to open an East of the River Health Center in 2019.

In Ward 8 city officials hope to build a hospital with a maternity ward run by George Washington University Hospital in 2023.

Then there are people like Matthews, who despite being pregnant at 15, finished at the top of her class, graduated from Trinity Washington University, and now works at a program for teen mothers called Healthy Babies Project.  Matthews is now an example for the young women she helps.

“Sometimes I don’t realize how much of an impact I have. Until we’re like in meetings and they’re like, who is your role model and they’re like ‘Miss Tanazia!’ And I’m like ‘Aww, me, really?’” she told WUSA9. “But it feels good to know that I’m giving back and even though I’m so young, girls my age or younger than me still look up to me and they’re like you have something going here, you have a goal and you know what you want to do and I don’t mind helping people get there.”

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor