By Gaetana Drake
Here in the United States we have the highest infant/maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country. But listen to the stories of two women who live in Gabu, Guinea-Bissau, located in Africa.
Gabu is considered the most dangerous place in the world for a woman to give birth. A woman here has a 1 in 19 chance of dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, compared to a 1 in 2,100 chance in the U.S.
Most births still take place in villages, and if something goes wrong the woman can be hours away from medical help. Cell phones (if someone in the village has one) work sporadically, travel by boat depends on the tides and automobiles are rare and expensive. A journey of just a few miles can take hours.
When a woman arrives at a hospital or clinic, she is not treated until her family pays up front for any necessary medication. The clinics do not have pharmacies and a family member will be told what medication the woman needs and be sent to purchase it before treatment can begin.
Generators are used only for storage. Mid-wives work by flashlight or candlelight. There is no power for refrigeration to store blood donations or to run incubators for premature babies.
Cultural practices make it even more difficult for women. It is common for girls to marry as young as 13. Unicef estimates that 7% of girls under the age of 15 are already married and mothers. Most of the women of the region have undergone female mutilation.
Aissato Sanha is spending the last few weeks of her high risk pregnancy in a bed near the surgery room. Her room is filled with women in labor. She tells the nurse she is 18, but the nurse believes she is probably 15. Her water breaks early in the morning and she goes into labor. By the next day her baby is no closer to being born and the hospital director determines that she needs a Cesarean section for her and the baby to survive. But first her mother must go to the pharmacy to buy the necessary medications. When Aissato’s son is finally born he is missing part of a leg and his fingers are webbed. One eye socket is completely obscured by a cleft palate and his head is abnormally large. The massive deformaties were not discovered during the pregnancy because ultrasounds are not part of pre-natal care in this region. The baby will go home with the family, but in many cases, severely deformed babies are neglected and die.
Fatumata Djau stayed home to give birth to her fourth child. The placenta does not deliver normally and hours later she is at a maternity ward, losing a lot of blood. Her brother is sent to buy medicine to stop the bleeding, but comes back with the wrong one. He goes off to the pharmacy again, while his sister continues to hemorrhage. Fatumata goes into convulsions and cardiac arrest. CPR fails. She leaves behind 4 daughters and a 75 year old husband.
Outreach teams operated by Catholic Relief Services have helped cut the mortality rate in the past two decades by going into remote villages and determining which women have high risk pregnancies and providing training for mid-wives. However, the one thing they won’t do is provide birth control education. Women in remote villages don’t know there is such a thing as birth control. They grow up knowing they will probably have many more children than they can care for and will more than likely die in childbirth. Remember, young girls are given to older men in arranged marriages. They do not have legal, political or financial power. They are subjugated to men.
For some reason many people equate “population control” or even birth control with “extermination”. The world is over-populated. Thousands of people die every day from starvation and lack of clean drinking water. Is it humane to allow this to continue? Isn’t it more humane to help women control their reproductive lives so they don’t die? So they don’t have to watch their children die?
We should all support the effort to bring birth control to third world countries. Lives depend on it.