Saving the Mothers

September 12, 2005

“To bear you, I had to look on death. To nurture you, I had to wrestle with it. All women have to fight with death to keep their children.” –Oscar Wilde

Among the more memorable images that came our way from the crash known as New Orleans — and there have been plenty — was that of dead babies quietly floating through the city’s flooded streets in feces-laden sludge.

Dead black babies.

As one Afro-American woman lamented, “It was to hell with us Negroes.” Most victims of this latest global weather disaster were trapped, second-class citizens.

We could shrug this off as an American problem but it mirrors life in the developing world. One German paper noted that the scenes from Louisiana, “are otherwise known only in places like African capitals,” and there, as in New Orleans, women and children suffer most.

Few westerners know this better than my wife Jean, a McMaster University obstetrician who has spent much of her professional life working in needy countries. Say hello to her on Sept. 23 and 24 at McMaster’s International Women’s and Children’s Health Symposium.

Sponsored in part by this newspaper, it’s the seventh annual conference Jean has organized to help educate Hamiltonians about such things. You can also say hello to Jean tomorrow. More on that in a minute. “New Orleans has been a very timely example,” she explains.

“If a mother doesn’t get water for a day or two, she can’t feed her baby and the baby will soon die of dehydration. There needs to be special efforts for women and their children. They need to be a priority.”

But they’re often not a priority. And while we rightly get upset when it takes five days for the American government to get hurricane victims out of New Orleans, we don’t really notice the truckloads of other black women and children dying of equally preventable reasons. Why not?

Quite simply, because they have no voice.

Yet a stray bullet in the Big Easy or a stray bullet in some Third World village will both keep a young mom from seeking medical help. A road washed out by hurricane Katrina or a road washed out by some obscure tropical storm will both keep that mom from reaching care.

One really isn’t different than the other, except that one mom has more cultural pressures putting her at risk.

These are the kind of issues being discussed at this year’s McMaster symposium, aptly called Women’s and Children’s Health During Unrest and Disaster: Facing Impossible Odds.

Worth the registration fee alone is keynote speaker Peter Raymont. The filmmaker made Shake Hands with the Devil about Canadian General Romeo Dallaire’s experience in the 1994 Rwandan massacre.

The point is that the well-being of countless women and children around the world has less to do with health care per se and everything to do with other societal matters, which is why Jean and I make our overseas base in Uganda.

There we’ll start what is Jean’s signature project, Save the Mothers International.

Years in development, this new public health leadership program will help stem the tide of dying mothers in the Third World through a multidisciplinary approach.

Think of training the trainer.

Teach indigenous leaders – politicians, educators, lawyers, journalists and social scientists – the core reasons why their women are dying, then send them back into their spheres of influence to initiate broader societal change.

New attitudes. New infrastructures. New futures.

As Jean notes, “We in the west don’t have all the answers, but people in their own cultures can make it happen if they want to.”

The Save the Mothers program starts in October at a university near Kampala, the capital of Uganda, an African country where 6,000 women die every year due to preventable complications of childbirth.

With our two-year-old daughter Elizabeth and two-month-old son Jonathan Thomas, we’ll live there on campus while running it.

You can learn more and meet Jean tomorrow at the official Hamilton launch of Save the Mothers at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 7 p.m. Phone 905-522-1155, ext. 3973.

For details about McMaster’s International Women and Children’s Health Symposium, Sept. 23 and 24, phone 905-525-9140, ext. 22671.

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September 12, 2005 • Posted in ,
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