Giving Zambia’s babies the safest start in life

Doris Kangolo (far right) and her maternal grandmother Eunice (second from right) together with caregivers and other pregnant women outside the Fiwale Maternity Waiting House. (@ UNICEF:Christine Nesbitt)
Doris Kangolo (far right) and her maternal grandmother Eunice (second from right) together with caregivers and other pregnant women outside the Fiwale Maternity Waiting House. (@ UNICEF:Christine Nesbitt)

In the months leading up to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, The Herald and Sunday Herald newspapers in Scotland are running their Children of the Commonwealth Appeal in support of UNICEF. They’re also publishing a series of inspiring stories from key locations on the route of the Queen’s Baton Relay. In Zambia, UNICEF helps to provide much-needed improvements in care for expectant mothers.

Doris Kangolo is just days away from giving birth. She looks tired and her feet are painfully swollen, but it could be worse.

In the past, like many other women in Zambia, Doris had to trek to hospital on foot or by bike while heavily pregnant. Women who reside in more remote areas, over 60 miles from their nearest hospital, cannot even make it to a health facility in time. These women are frequently forced to give birth at home in unsterile conditions and with little assistance.

But today Doris is resting in the comfort of the Fiwale Maternity Waiting House. Run with support from UNICEF and the Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia, the centre provides a safe and restful place for women to await the births of their babies.

“I live about 10 kilometres from the nearest clinic,” Doris says. “During my previous six pregnancies I came to the clinic by bicycle to deliver my children. That was very painful, and this will be much easier.”

Alongside distance, many women are prevented from giving birth safely owing to traditional beliefs and myths around assisted labour. As a result, Zambia suffers from an excessively high maternal mortality rate of 591 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Thanks to a ‘Safe Motherhood Action Group’ set up in Doris’ community of Masaiti District, located in Zambia’s central Copperbelt Province, she now has the knowledge and access needed to ensure a safe birth. The group is comprised of local community volunteers who support pregnant women by promoting safe antenatal care, the importance of giving birth at health facilities and ensuring skilled workers attend the birth. They also refer women and newborn babies for specialist care when needed – a rarity in a country where more than 50 per cent of Zambian women receiving no postnatal care at all.

Pregnant women are welcomed to the Fiwale Maternity Waiting House and are allowed to stay with a caregiver for up to four months before giving birth. In the event of any health complications, they are just a few metres from the local health centre.

While the Ministry of Health in Zambia recommends that all rural health centres have a mothers’ shelter, the Fiwale Maternity Waiting House is currently the only one operational in Doris’s district.

“Most of the shelters are in a deplorable state,” says Joan Manda, the Masaiti District Reproductive Health Coordinator. “Mothers cannot wait there and they are not family friendly. Consequently, expectant mothers have to leave other children at home when they give birth.”

Since the establishment of Safe Motherhood Action Groups, the district has seen a drop in the number of babies and mothers dying. “We’ve scored tremendous success in reducing postnatal haemorrhage, mothers are registering early for antenatal care, and we’ve reduced the number of maternal complications,” says Joseph Musonda, the Ministry of Health’s Planning Manager for Masaiti District.

“We are also able to test expectant mothers for HIV and, if they are living positively, provide them with antiretroviral drugs to protect newborns from HIV and prolong the mothers’ lives.”

With your help, the Fiwale Maternity Waiting House and local Safe Motherhood Action Group, plus many more like these in surrounding districts, can be supported to offer mums like Doris a safe place to give birth and the best possible start in life for their babies.