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Saving Mothers' Lives in Uganda
An under-reported story: 6,000 mothers die in childbirth every year. Our Prime Minister’s announcement to focus on maternal and child health at the G8 summit is most encouraging.

Safuyati’s casket is carried past me.

It’s difficult to paint a bleaker picture for women and children in this part of the world.

The pallbearers, ten Muslim men, are careful not to bring her body too close to me or other women, lest it be contaminated. Strange irony, it is, that such care is taken for the dead and so little for the living.

There are about 200 gathered here, in this village in eastern Uganda, to mourn Safuyati’s death. The women, in their brightly-coloured clothes, wail loudly. Another one of their own has lost what’s known here as “the battle.” This is childbirth Ugandan-style.

I’ve come to the village, in fact, for other things: to bring a Canadian television journalist, and to visit a local political leader who’s one of my students. Little did I realize we’d walk into a funeral. This is how common death is in this East African nation where an estimated 6,000 mothers die in childbirth every year.

The cause? Lack of skilled attendants and emergency care. More often than not, if mothers do arrive at a care facility, they’re already half dead. In Sufayati’s case, she arrived at a local clinic virtually gasping her last breaths. Nobody was surprised when she bled to death soon after. It takes about four hours for a mother to bleed to death after delivery. But when you deliver at home and live two hours from the nearest clinic, time is not in your favour.

Sufayati now leaves nine children. Her husband has no way to care for this new child, a boy. I will be asked to bring him to a local orphanage. As a child without a mother, he will likely die also, in his case before he reaches his fifth birthday.

It’s difficult to paint a bleaker picture for women and children in this part of the world. And so I mourn this woman’s death. And I mourn the disparity of care that leads to this abhorrent violation of the most basic of human rights: the right to live.

As Canadians, we all should all mourn. Indeed, in Canada — for all the frustrations we have over our health care — there are ambulances. And health workers. And equipment. Indeed, there is electricity.

Recently here in Uganada, a bleeding mother cried to a physician colleague of mine, “Please doctor, I’m dying!” My friend pleaded with the anesthetist to put the woman down for surgery, but, since the power was out, he refused to take the risk of attempting to use his equipment manually. That mother also bled to death. (The anesthetist has since left Uganda. Who wants to work in a place where there are not even enough gloves, where the medicine cupboard is bare and where you’re paid a government salary equaling $17 a day?)

So the mothers of Uganda continue to die: from bleeding out, or eclampsia, or septic shock, or with a half-born child wedged in their wombs; in clinics, in huts, on dirt floors. Globally, they die one a minute, over half a million a year in the developing world. Seventy percent die in 13 countries: in the African countries of Uganda, Tanzania, DR Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Angola; and outside of Africa in Pakistan, Indonesia, China, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

They die quietly. No rock stars sing. No Super Bowl commercials advertise. Nobody hears their crying children. This is unequivocally the most under-reported story of our time.

As a Canadian obstetrician living in Uganda because I’m committed to helping at least some of these needy women, I can tell you that these deaths, while virtually all preventable, are caused largely by a web of societal values and attitudes toward women. And so the best way to turn the tide in this centuries-old battle is not only through health workers, but through local leaders: parliamentarians and journalists, community activists and clergy, educators and lawyers who will finally say enough is enough. These are the people who will make new laws and tell the stories and speak to their congregations and lobby for women’s rights, then network among each other to create grassroots change from within their indigenous cultures.

Save the Mothers, a program that my team and I have birthed in Uganda and hope to expand elsewhere, is based on this multi-disciplinary approach. After just five years, results already visible with Uganda’s Parliament passing new legislation recently to better protect its mothers. Of course, it’s a drop of hope in an ocean of grief. But, I must say, I and others are also most encouraged by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent announcement to make maternal and child health the focus of this year’s G8 summit hosted by Canada.

Not that Harper, or any one person can work miracles. But maybe for the first time this issue will get the political backing from rich Western powers that it so desperately needs.

And maybe I’ll end up in one less funeral.

Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese is founding director of Save the Mothers (savethemothers.org). She is based at McMaster University when in Canada. She is the 2009 recipient of the Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award by the Royal College of Physician and Surgeons of Canada. Freelance journalist Thomas Froese contributed to this article. For more information, see Save the Mothers website.

Originally published in The National Post, March 01, 2010.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.

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