Maternal Health in Haiti: Why Women and Children Should Come First
I've been reflecting, recently, on my birth experiences with my daughter and my son. They were difficult births - my son's, very difficult - and I've been thinking about how the challenges of those birth experiences shape my general experience as a mother, if at all. And I've been thinking about what a luxury that is, to be able to reflect on all the nuances of the how of giving birth successfully, when for many women, the question is only if. There are too many women in Haiti right now who don't know whether they'll be able to successfully birth their children. And too many new mothers who don't know whether they or their babies will survive. And too many children who have lost their mothers already, and too many mothers who have lost their children, and it all makes me feel more than a little guilty for spending more than three seconds lamenting my torn vulva.
It also makes me appreciate the dictum, in times of emergencies, women and children first. There's been some controversy about this - as Jezebel reported last week, some mens' websites bristled at the suggestion that agencies and organizations working in Haiti should provide special attention to women and children ("That these women's groups are heading to a disaster area with the same anti-male agenda with which we are so familiar should be cause for outrage," stated one such site) - but really, isn't it, when we come right down to it, just common sense? Women and children are much, much more vulnerable than grown men. Mothers and babies, in particular, are much more likely to die or be injured. According to the Salon article that fueled some of the controversy, women and children "are typically the ones most vulnerable in the wake of a catastrophe like the 7.0 earthquake that hit (Haiti) Tuesday, potentially killing hundreds of thousands."
This is an uncomfortable truth - that women and children might need special protection or extra aid - but it is, I would argue, a true one. It's not to say that all men, universally, are better-equipped to survive a disaster - just that, considered collectively, women and children have more obvious vulnerabilities, not least those pertaining to being less able to defend themselves and to having special needs related to maternity and family care. Mothers - expectant mothers and new mothers especially - have special needs, and their lives and the lives of their babies depend upon those needs being met so far as is possible.
CARE Canada has stated that, "with limited or no access to health facilities, pregnant women are at... greater risk of complications and death related to pregnancy and childbirth. Haiti already has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the region: 670 deaths per 100,000 live births." They also note that over half the population of Haiti is under the age of eighteen. This is a young and vulnerable population.
According to Sophie Perez, Canadian director for CARE in Haiti, "there are a lot of pregnant women in the streets, and mothers breastfeeding new babies... There are also women giving birth in the street, directly in the street. The situation is very critical. Women try to reach the nearest hospital, but as most of the hospitals are full, it's very difficult for them to receive the appropriate care. Mothers and their babies could die from complications without medical care."
The CARE report goes on to point out that "normally 15 percent of pregnant women experience complications requiring medical interventions. The problem is even worse during a disaster. The majority of maternal deaths result from hemorrhage, infection, miscarriage, prolonged/obstructed labor and hypertensive disorders, many of which could be avoided with medical care."
Those of us who have found ourselves in that 15 percent know how terrifying and traumatic the experience can be. Imagining having that experience in an earthquake zone, with no functioning hospitals, is, to understate it profoundly, sobering, and heartwrenching.
When you make your donation to help efforts in Haiti, consider directing that donation to an agency that works to help women and children. It could make all the difference.