Today, I cried on a bus with a stranger.
“773 women will die.” She said. I didn’t even know her name yet. I was barely processing what she was saying, and kind of embarrassed as my thoughts tried to sort themselves out.
773, is that a lot? It sounds like a lot. But like, a day? A year? What’s 773 out of 6 million? 773 seems like a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
Luckily she clarified.
“773 out of every 1000 will die because of complications during birth.”
Wait, what?? Are you saying that over 75% of pregnancies will kill the mother? That can’t be, I mean, what? That’s so high! [I was stammering at this point, trying to find the words to make sense of what she was telling me]
Elos is a nurse and she is training to be a midwife. She is passionate about bringing better health to women, especially in the rural areas of the country. She says it’s a constant battle. A hard one. But one that she’s proud to fight.
She sites facilities, infrastructure, education and, most of all, culture for PNG’s high maternal mortality rate (MMR). There are less than 400 doctors in a country of over 6 million people. The majority of doctors and facilities are in the capital, Port Moresby, while about 75% of the population lives elsewhere. The roads are in no condition to transport anyone in any hurry to live (she said that most women being transported to a hospital or clinic in critical condition don’t make it). And PNG’s culture often gives all of the power and authority to the men (I say “often” because there are over 700 tribes in the country, each with their own distinct culture, so it’s hard to group them all under an umbrella). As she described women being married into families, often with more than one wife, the men in the bus nodded along. She described the women having no say in the decision to have children, the men nodded along. She described the woman’s role as the often subservient, barer of children and subject to her husband’s will (many times in concert with his other wives), the men nodded along. Some shook their heads and clicked their teeth.
After talking with Elos, I’ve been looking into the data on PNG’s MMR and can’t find the numbers she cites, but still, the data is staggering. So, I’m not sure what the 773 measures, but Australian Doctors International confirms the issues – high MMR, high infant mortality, etc. 10% of all deaths in PNG are due to perinatal conditions. Let that sink in – 1 in 10 deaths.
So, what? Things are rough in another country. Poor them. What’s the point? Well, a few things.
First is that when traveling, it’s not the beaches and resorts that tell the story of the place, it’s the people. It’s always the people. And in PNG, where the reputation of danger is high and the faith in the people is low, are people like Elos, working every day to make her country better. Safer. Stronger. PNG will be a better country for having been home to Elos, and we will continue to see progress as people like her keep working.
Next is that in the US we’re currently arguing about the funding of Planned Parenthood. We are allowing a facility that has an immense impact on women’s health hang in the balance of the debate on abortion. And that’s sad. Advocacy for women’s health and discussion on abortion need to be severed. We cannot take for granted the progress we have made in women’s health because one issue amongst many is so polarizing and politicized. Elos talks about how hard it is to advocate for the women’s issues in PNG because the men in power just can’t relate, which means they don’t care*. Sadly, this is not an issue isolated to developing countries. Would we be able to swallow heading back in the direction that we’ve come from? I hope not. Does the answer have to be Planned Parenthood? All I care is that all women have access to important healthcare services. I don’t care what you call it or what the name on the door is. But it would seem logical to let the company who has been providing such critical service for so long, continue to do so (plus everything they do for their male patients too).
*obviously just about any human being in the world when asked about the important issues of women’s health cares, I’m not saying that men in power don’t “care” about women; what I mean here is that they care enough to take action, that it is resonant enough to make them meaningful advocates for issues that they may not inherently understand
I know it’s a mega-leap to compare a developed country with one in which 42% of births happen outside of medical care. While the level of care is totally different, the issues are hauntingly similar. For me, chatting with Elos was sobering. I immediately felt embarrassed for how little I do for women’s health, other than have an opinion and share it, and take my uterus to the doc for regular check ups (at Planned Parenthood, using my insurance as I would anywhere else). I realized that while I just consider it equality, I’m lucky to be born in a country where I have a say – in my health, in the number of kids I have, in how I want to advocate for other women. I’m incredibly humbled by Elos. She doesn’t ask herself what she wants her legacy to be. She asks herself how she can make an impact and works incredibly hard to do so. For everyone out there who is doing more than have an opinion, I applaud you. For those of you who’ve gotten to the opinion stage, that’s a start, but time for action. For those of you who have tried to just not think about it because it doesn’t effect you, it does. If you know a woman person or someone who is or has been a baby, these issues effect you and they matter.