National Edition

Women helping women: How $2 can save mothers' and babies' lives in the developing world

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Tewabech Kutambo, around 30, holds her baby Kutaynesh Kuna after giving birth on the way to collect water four days previously in Lahyte, Konso, Ethiopia, in 2012.

Anna Kari, c/o WaterAid

If there is one thing every mother knows, it is that babies arrive on their own schedule. And no mother knows this better than 30-year-old Tewabech Kutambo, who lives in a small village called Lahyte, 370 miles south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

There is no water in Lahyte. To get water to drink, cook with, clean themselves and do washing, women leave before the sun is up and walk for two hours to the banks of the Orbole River. Filling their containers with as much water as they can carry, they make the two-hour trek back to their homes under the blazing African sun.

It’s a task that can’t be put off or postponed, no matter how tired or sick a woman feels — or how pregnant she is. Tewabech’s family depends on her, and if she doesn’t collect water, her family doesn’t eat or drink.

One morning when she was nearly nine months pregnant, Tewabech set out alone to collect water for her family. She was exhausted. She had sharp pains in her side. But she pushed the discomfort out of her mind as she made her way to the river.

It wasn’t until she was on her way back, containers of water in her arms, that the pain became too much to bear. Her baby was coming.

Tewabech gave birth to her child, a little girl, alone on the side of the road. She used some of the water she had with her to clean herself and the baby. Then, after resting for a little while, Tewabech got up and, with her baby in one hand and her water cans in the other, made her way back home.

Tewabech's story, told by David Winder, chief executive of the nonprofit group WaterAid, isn't uncommon. Every year 57 million women worldwide give birth without the help of a trained health worker, according to the World Health Organization. “It is often the case that they will give birth on the dirt floors in their homes,” said Dana Allison, executive director of Women’s World Health Initiative.

In these circumstances, the risk of infection to mothers and babies is extremely high. And in the developing world, where access to antibiotics is limited, infections are fatal. In this sense, Tewbech and her daughter are lucky. Although the delivery was traumatic, neither contracted an infection.

But many women and children in similar circumstances are not as fortunate. The World Health Organization estimates that half a million women per year die from infections associated with childbirth. Nearly 1 million newborns die each year from infection.

To address this issue, aid organizations have started distributing clean birth kits to women in low-resource settings around the world, such as Mozambique, Tibet and India. These aid groups, along with women’s health advocates, hope that by providing expectant mothers with a few basic hygiene items wrapped in a small portable bag, rates of infection in mothers and babies will dramatically decrease.

“When women in the United States find out they are pregnant, they are excited and think about what they will name the baby or who the baby will look like,” said Paula Dhanda, a California-based OB-GYN and founder of the nonprofit organization Worldwide Healing Hands, which works to improve maternal and infant health in developing countries.

“Women in developing countries have a lot of fear,” said Dhanda. “Will I survive the delivery? Will my baby?”

The importance of clean birth kits and hygienic practices when delivering a baby cannot be understated, said Allison. But getting attention and support for these projects is difficult.

“Because we don’t face these problems in the West, it is a difficult issue for women to connect to,” she said.

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