Saving the Mothers:
A Canadian doctor becomes an advocate for Uganda’s destitute
Grief sweeps over Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese as she stands in the back hall of the university hospital in Kampala, Uganda. On a metal trolley before her lie five babies – three stillborn infants and two neonatal deaths. The wee bodies are wrapped in thin blankets. Name tags on each blanket identify the children’s mothers.
The doctor reads the names and then thinks of another mother – one who died of pregnancy-related complications in the same hospital a few hours ago. Six needless deaths in one day, she thinks. If this happened in North America, authorities would launch an investigation and heads would roll. But here? Nothing happens.
Jean turns from the trolley with increased determination to save the lives of Uganda’s mothers and children. A specialist in Obstetrics and Gynecology, she’s committed to using her medical skills and her voice to make necessary changes, and she’s succeeding. In 2005, Froese co-founded Save the Mothers, an international organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for mothers in developing countries. If mothers enjoy good health, their children also benefit, she reasons. She bases her efforts on Proverbs 31:9: “Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.”
“As a follower of Christ, it’s my responsibility to speak up for the rights of the destitute, for those who can’t defend themselves,” says Jean. “Ugandan mothers and children fall into this category.” She quotes startling statistics to support her stance:
- A woman in Africa has a 1 in 16 chance of dying from pregnancy-related complications – a stark contrast from the industrialized world where that figure is 1 in 4,000.
- These medical difficulties claim the lives of approximately 17 Ugandan women each day, or 6,000 annually.
- Most of these deaths are from severe bleeding. This could be remedied with a 33 cent medication, less than the price of a cup of coffee.
- On the average, each woman who dies leaves four children behind. Those children are 3 to 10 times more likely to die within two years than those living with both parents.
Jean, an assistant professor at Canada’s McMaster University, had practiced medicine in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Pakistan, and Russia before her first rural hospital posting in Uganda in 1998. Nothing had prepared her for the dire need she encountered: Water supply was sporadic. Forty patients shared one room. Flimsy mattresses covered the beds. Patients had to supply their own bedding, plastic gloves, and medications. Surgical equipment, including anesthesia, was either outdated or non-existent. Local doctors and nurses were overworked and often didn’t want to be there, and their attitudes towards patients reflected their frustration. The combination of poor facilities and ill treatment frightened expectant mothers who, in turn, refused to visit the hospital for prenatal care or for their baby’s safe delivery. This jeopardized the mothers’ well-being, which in turn placed their babies and other children at risk.
Inadequate facilities and poor treatment contributed to the nation’s high maternal mortality rate, but Jean soon discovered a deeper issue. “I realized that the root problem was how women are viewed within their community. If they’re properly valued, then their communities will be willing to invest in medical services to ensure their health. Unfortunately, the opposite is usually true.”
In this culture, Jean discovered, women are denied the freedom to make decisions about their own health. They must receive permission and money from their husbands before seeking medical care. If a woman needs a Caesarean section to deliver her child safely but her husband is not present to give permission, doctors refuse to operate. This usually results in the woman’s death.
She also discovered cultural superstitions that endanger women and children. One myth says that women who need C-sections have been unfaithful to their husbands. That misunderstanding causes expectant mothers to stay far from hospitals. Another belief says that pregnancy is like a battle for each individual woman. She goes in and fights that battle. Some mothers win; some lose.
“You don’t see the community rally around the woman if she has complications,” says Jean. “No one says, ‘Let’s find transportation and take her to the hospital, and let’s make sure the hospital provides decent care.’ If the woman dies, it’s because she lost her battle and she’s considered a failure. Her family will spend one or two hundred dollars for her funeral, but no one donates a few dollars to save her life.”
Because taking a rural woman to a hospital requires time, family members are often reluctant to help her. Jean says the common thought is, We can’t afford to lose two weeks of work to save this mother’s life. “She’s not valued as highly important in the family, the one who raises the children and ensures their health. From an economic point of view, it makes sense to invest in a mother’s health. It saves money in the long run, but people don’t see it that way,” she says. “People think short term: I’m going to lose two weeks now rather than If we don’t commit two weeks now, we’ll lose the mother of these children.”
Jeans cites the story of a mother who hemorrhaged to death after childbirth. A film crew went to the funeral and interviewed the woman’s 13-year-old daughter. “I don’t know what to do,” the girl said. “My mother was everything. She encouraged and comforted me. She taught me how to cook and do other everyday things. Now she’s gone. I’ll have to leave school to take over her responsibilities.”
This scenario is commonplace. In many cases, the father sends his children to live with other families who are already struggling financially to feed and care for their own youngsters. The end result? Children’s health is comprised, and medications are not affordable if diseases such as pneumonia or malaria strike them. “When the mother dies, the whole family suffers,” says Jean, “and when the family breaks down, society follows. Satan loves to see this happen. But we can make a difference by praying intentionally and then doing something about the problem.”
Following her own counsel, Jean and Dr. Florence Mirembi, former chair of the OB Gyn department at Uganda’s Makerere University, established Save the Mothers. Their strategy is simple but effective: train leaders such as journalists, politicians, health workers, social workers, teachers, and pastors to educate others about the problem. In conjunction with the health program taught at the Ugandan Christian University, professionals earn a master’s degree in Public Health Leadership. The course requires them to attend classes for three weeks, three times a year for two years. They must also complete a major project focused on safe motherhood in their own area of work.
“Basically, these leaders are being trained in preventative medicine,” says Jean. “They’re learning about the essentials needed to save a mother’s life. But they’re also learning to integrate their new knowledge with their daily lives. As a result of their influence, legislation has been passed to include maternal healthcare in the nation’s budget and the public is learning about the problem through media coverage. Perhaps most importantly, these professionals are learning about the key to behavioral change – understanding that women are not just objects, they are valued people.”
Alex, a student-leader enrolled in Save the Mothers, works for a non-governmental agency that serves people with HIV/AIDS. Upon completing one module, he returned to his village and met with women’s groups to discuss their health issues. “A man meeting with women’s groups is far from the norm in this culture, nevertheless the event was an overwhelming success,” recalls Jean. “Alex later testified to being a changed person having taken the course. He said, ‘I see women differently now.’ That’s exactly what I want to hear.”
Her role as advocate for Ugandan mothers and children has given Jean a deeper understanding of God’s love and concern for people within the context of a fallen world. “God values the poor and destitute, and He’s moving people such as national professionals to get involved on their behalf. It’s happening in Uganda, and we hope to establish Save the Mothers in Asia as well. But we need more North Americans to come alongside and become advocates, too. Scripture says we’re to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers, so that’s what we’re doing. The North American Christian community can engage in this battle by learning more about the problem, praying for improvement, traveling to Uganda and other similar countries to see the struggle firsthand, financially supporting programs that care for the health of mothers and children, and telling others.”
“Poor maternal care is a neglected tragedy,” says Jean. “Rather than simply lamenting the issue, we, as believers, ought to cast a vision for a solution and then move forward on behalf of the poor and destitute.”
For more information, read Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese’s book Where Have All the Mothers Gone? Available on the Save the Mothers website: www.savethemothers.org
© Grace Fox 2009