Nowadays, with all the extensive medical care, doctors and pain meds available for soon-to-be-mothers, pregnancy seems like a walk in the park! While about 200 years ago, pregnancy was almost like a death sentence, now the prospect of a childbirth-related death is almost unheard of, right? Actually, wrong.
Each year childbirth complications kill 4.3 million women and babies worldwide (just as a comparison, AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis kill 4.2 million people worldwide each year). Maybe the prospect of childbirth fatalities seems so anomalous and antiquated because of the fact that 99% occur in developing nations. Another staggering statistic: 95% of childbirth related deaths are preventable with access to appropriate care. The natural generation of life is slowly becoming responsible for more deaths than actual diseases.
This sets the scene for the documentary Sister: An Intimate Portrait of a Global Crisis, directed and produced by Brenda Davis. The film follows three maternal health care workers in Haiti, Cambodia and Ethiopia as they work tirelessly to save the lives of poverty-stricken women and babies, and attempt to grapple with their limited resources and increasingly high demand.
In Haiti, the documentary captures the endeavors of traditional birth attendant, Madam Bwa, a literal goddess originating from the same celestial being that gave us Beyonce and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is fearless and determined, often working over 12 hours a day. She has been helping mothers deliver their babies since she was 12 years old and has delivered over 12,000 babies in her extensive career. She deals with mothers who can’t afford a bucket of water and often must instruct them against eating dirt. One mother had originally given birth to a healthy baby, but after having nothing to feed him but sugar and water because of an inability to breast feed, the baby became sickly and emaciated. 1 in 44 women die of child birth in Haiti, and Madam Bwa works tirelessly to beat those odds. Along with delivering babies and taking care of sick, impoverished soon-to-be mothers, Madam Bwa instructs teen girls about using birth control and avoiding pregnancy.
In Cambodia, we see the struggles faced by rural midwife Pum Mach. In this nation about 1 in 48 women die from childbirth related causes, often stemming from a lack of available transportation. One perspective mother was a mere 19 years old and would die unless she received a cesarean section, except the nearest hospital was two hours away and she had the equivalent of $2.00 to her name.
The worst conditions, however, exist in Ethiopia- where 1 in 27 women die from childbirth-related problems. The documentary features Goitom Berhane, the only medically-trained professional of the lot, with a Bachelor's degree in health and medicine and a two-year masters in emergency surgery in obstetrics/gynecology. He discusses the lack of available medical care in Ethiopia- resulting in about 55 deaths every day, 90% of which are entirely preventable. He speaks of three delays that are usually responsible for death: 1) delay in delivery- often because women prefer home births and don’t visit a hospital until it's too late. 2) delay in transportation. 3) delay in appropriate management.
In Sister, we follow the lives of these mothers through the most brutal and beautiful of circumstances, as they tirelessly fight to save their own lives and the lives of their children. For those of us fortunate enough to be born in a nation where we have regular access to medical care, we must not take this luxury for granted, and we must do everything in our power to help those who are not as lucky as ourselves. The maternal and newborn mortality rate in these developing nations is not something that we should simply accept or dismiss as an inevitable casualty. This is an issue of human rights that must be given more attention. Mothers should not be punished for creating life, and there shouldn’t be 4.3 million easily preventable deaths each year.
We have a responsibility as human beings to help save these women and children. There are some organizations, such as the World Health Organization, that help deliver medical care to mothers in developing countries, but unfortunately, there are not nearly enough resources to go around.