South Sudan has an astonishingly high maternal mortality rate. In the world’s youngest country, the risk of a South Sudanese woman dying during pregnancy or childbirth is as high as one in seven. Poor infrastructure, distance from health facilities, and little or no income give women little hope to receive the health care they need.
Patricia, South Sudanese, and Jacinta, Australian, are both seasoned midwives who work with Medair in Aweil Centre, in the far north-west of South Sudan. They provide much needed reproductive health services to women and their new-borns.
We asked them some questions about the work they do.
What is the situation like for pregnant women in the area where you are working?
Jacinta: “In a country like South Sudan, getting access to quality reproductive health care is very challenging. For a lot of women, there is no way to get to a hospital or afford transport to travel long distances. If something goes wrong at home, for example during labour, it will sadly often be too late to do anything about it.”
Patricia: “Most women who want to deliver their baby in the hospital, have to walk for three or more hours. Sometimes, they even come from further away and have to sleep over somewhere to continue their journey the next day. There are cases where mothers have to give birth on the side of the road, as she can’t reach a hospital in time. Just imagine.”
What support do you and your team provide to pregnant and new mothers?
Patricia: “We offer antenatal and postnatal care services to women and their babies in 16 locations across Aweil Centre. As part of these services, we also provide vaccinations, give education to the women on good health and hygiene practices, and help them with family planning, encouraging them to keep enough time in between pregnancies to maintain the best health for their bodies and children.”
Jacinta: “Recently, we also opened a 24-hour delivery centre, so women could give birth safely and be cared for after delivery. In doing so, we can be there for them during a very critical time. By providing health care, we also want to build a relationship with the people and let them know that we really care. We take the time to ask the mothers how they are really doing, we listen to their stories. For example, we had a pregnant teenage girl come to our clinic. Her parents had both died and she was given away to a man. We realised that we could not change her circumstances. However, we could give her the medical care she needed as well as someone to share her story with. To us, those two elements of care go hand in hand. We are glad that we can be there for these women in such a way.”
How does COVID-19 affect your work?
Patricia: “COVID-19 has affected everything. But we cannot limit or delay the services that we provide as women need continued access to antenatal, delivery, and postnatal care services. So we have implemented many necessary protection measures. Social distancing in a clinic setting is not easy, but we keep reminding ourselves and each other of the importance of it.”
What made you decide to become a midwife and work in South Sudan?
Jacinta: “It comes from my faith in God and the desire that He has put on my heart. There is such a strong pull to use my skills and passion to make a difference in women’s and their babies’ lives. To help them to do well.
Once you have the desire to be a midwife, it becomes very much part of who you are. I have been a midwife for 17 years, but every time I help a mother deliver her child, I still find it one of most amazing things I can think of.”
Patricia: “Growing up, my aunt used to take me in communities where health services were not available. She wanted to show me what that meant. Sometimes a mother would lose her child because there was no healthcare. Or the mother would pass away. I said to myself: ‘One day, I will become a midwife and help stop these deaths.’”
Why are you doing this work, both living far away from your families?
Patricia: “My mum and my daughter are in Uganda. My son is living far away as well. I have never been with my family for a long time. I miss them, but at least I can talk to them. I really thank God for Internet. Also, I have gotten used to move around and live in different places. Where I am, is where I belong. Life is not only about what I want. It is about other people too. I go where there is a need for me to go. I feel so blessed to be here and help the community to get much needed services.”
Jacinta: “There have been times that I struggled with living away from Australia, not knowing where home is anymore. My parents are elderly now and it is not easy to not live close to them. At the same time, like Patricia, I feel incredibly blessed to do this work. I love working with our South Sudanese colleagues who are passionate about their job and do the best they can to care for their people. Often, they have had to make a lot of sacrifices to study and get qualified for this work. It’s incredibly inspiring to learn from them. I have had opportunities to learn and do things that I would not have had staying at home.”
What do you consider some of the main challenges of your work?
Patricia: “Sometimes the circumstances do not allow us to provide the full support that we would want to provide. For example, if we refer a new-born child to the nearest hospital for specialised care, the journey might be very long and the child might not reach the hospital in time. It is hard when this happens. I have to remind myself that it is about doing the best we can within the limitations of the context that we work in.”
Is there anything else that you want to share?
Jacinta: “Most people assume that midwives are women. But did you know that out of our 7 midwives, 5 of them are men? In Australia, I have not encountered many male midwives but here in Aweil it’s much more common. They treat women very respectfully, with a lot of care and concern, and the mothers feel comfortable.”
Medair services in Aweil are funded by UK aid from the UK government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and private donors.
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and Global Support Office staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.