Celebrating Mother’s Day in South Sudan

Celebrating Mother’s Day in South Sudan

Women waiting for health services outside of Tambura PHCC, South Sudan.

 

Sitting under the lush mango trees in rural Tambura, South Sudan, I realized Mother’s Day was approaching and I needed to send my mom in Chicago a gift. More and more each year, I treasure my mom, who raised four children. But this year, while working on a health project in South Sudan, my appreciation and wonderment is also for mothers worldwide.

Addressing maternal health in South Sudan is daunting, to say the least. The soon-to-be-independent nation holds one of the worst maternal mortality ratios in the world at 2,054 deaths per 100,000 live births. That means that 1 out of every 48 babies who are born alive loses their mother at birth. In the United States that statistic is 8 deaths/100,000, or 1 out of every 12,500. That the average woman in South Sudan experiences 7 pregnancies in her life makes this reality even more dire. This is what public health refers to as a woman’s “lifetime risk;” statistically, 1 of every 7.5 women will die due to pregnancy or delivery complications. Take a moment to think of 8 women you know. If you lived in South Sudan, chances are one of them would die from hemorrhage, sepsis, or obstructed labor.

It’s a grim reality. So why tout these dismal maternal health statistics on Mother’s Day? Because even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, there is progress, offering hope for South Sudan’s future.

Last year, women requesting family planning at Tambura Primary Health Care Center (PHCC) received nothing but a sad shake of the head. Santina, the midwife in charge of maternal health at the facility, had nothing to offer women except the education that spacing children at least two years apart greatly increases the health of both the mother and child. Now, thanks to the Sudan Health Transformation Project, Phase 2 (SHTP II), funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by Management Sciences for Health (MSH), Santina can now provide her clients with a wide variety of modern contraceptive methods, including pills, condoms, and injectable shots. This is great news for the women of South Sudan as ensuring access to voluntary family planning could reduce maternal deaths by a third and child deaths by as much as 20 per cent.

The contraceptives, provided by the United Nations Family Planning Program (UNFPA) and USAID are in high demand; in February alone, the facility provided family planning services to 54 women. Satina says most women in the community “don’t like taking a pill every day” and prefer the injectable shot which lasts three months.

Family planning supplies in South Sudan.

 

Tambura County has the highest percentage of births attended by a skilled birth attendant of all SHTP II-supported counties, with 20% of women delivering with a nurse, midwife, or doctor in the past six months, while throughout South Sudan only 10% of births are attended by a skilled attendant. At the Tambura hospital, the main referral point for the area, there is no doctor. To fill this gap, UNFPA recently dispatched a nurse midwife to assist with deliveries in the hospital, as well as train local midwives and community health workers.

The lack of available medical personnel means most health facilities in South Sudan are run by community health workers who have only nine months of training and few clinical skills to handle complicated cases. One week before Mother’s Day, SHTP II offered a maternal and newborn health training in Tambura County. Twenty-three community health workers attended the training where they discussed recognition and treatment of the most common maternal health complications, overcoming patient delays in seeking care, and recognizing when to refer patients to the hospital.

While maternal health remains precarious in South Sudan, thanks to organizations like MSH, USAID, and UNFPA supporting the South Sudan Ministry of Health, there are real interventions on the ground making a difference for women every day.

So, what is the Mother’s Day gift I send this year? It is letting my mother know my commitment to reducing the number of mothers who die during child birth. It is letting my mother know I work so other children will have a chance to treasure their moms a little more deeply each passing year. It is letting my mother know that sitting under these mango trees is so much more indicative of my appreciation of mothers than sending dozens of flowers could ever be.

Erin Polich is a communications intern with the SHTP II project and is working in Southern Sudan. Erin is currently a student at Boston University’s School of Public Health.