I help run the maternal health charity, Send Hope Not Flowers. We are a small voluntary board of like-minded Canberrans who have come together to do what we can to help more mothers survive childbirth in developing countries.
Our team comprises co-founders Professor Steve Robson – specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist, and Emma Macdonald – Associate Editor of HerCanberra, Alex Fahey – entrepreneur, and myself, a corporate communications specialist. We have one main goal; to reduce maternal mortality through projects which are long-term, sustainable and empowering for women in developing countries, such as education and training of midwives and birth attendants or supplying basic obstetric equipment to assist with birth.
Our concept is very simple. When a baby is born in Australia, there is a better way to celebrate than sending flowers. For the cost of a bunch of flowers, you can send a beautiful, personalised birth card to a mother explaining that a donation in her honour has gone to help save the life of another mother somewhere in the world.
The Sustainable Development Goal [SGD Goal 3] sets a target of reducing the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030. So far, progress in developing countries – particularly those on our doorstep like Papua New Guinea – has been too slow to achieve this.
The disparity in maternal health outcomes between women in Australia and Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbour, is incomprehensible. As our understanding of the science of pregnancy has advanced, death during pregnancy has become a rare event for us. In Australia, 7.1 women in every 100,000 births die per year, compared with 500 out of 100,000 in Papua New Guinea.
The Women’s Economic Empowerment report highlights the powerful role of private and civil society partnerships and encourages new collaborations, promoting new commitments that will carry the work forward.
This is what we are working towards at Send Hope Not Flowers.
Through our partnerships, we fund practical, long-term and sustainable projects which empower women and improve maternal health outcomes in some of the most remote areas in the world.
Our partnership with Australian doctor, Barry Kirby, is a case in point.
Dr Barry Kirby has spent a decade devoting himself to assisting the women of Papua New Guinea – in particular, pregnant women in and around the 160 scattered islands that make up remote areas of Milne Bay Province.
In 2010 he undertook a ground-breaking in-depth study into the reasons why so many women were dying during childbirth. He meticulously retraced the last hours of 31 women who died during or shortly after labour. In many cases the common cause of death was bleeding, infection, and prolonged obstructed labour – all of which can be addressed cheaply and with minimal resources.
Dr Kirby found that the women were reluctant to leave their village for a supervised birth at a health centre because they felt “shy at presenting in an impoverished state and not having baby supplies or clothes” and they lacked the $5 equivalent cost for a health centre birth or money to buy food while they were away from their village. Geographical challenges have a deep impact in this region too.
Send Hope Not Flowers partnered with Dr Kirby on a simple and cost-effective pilot program providing ‘Baby Bundle Gifts’ to encourage village women to access a supervised birth at a health centre throughout the Milne Bay Province rather than alone in their village. The Baby Bundle includes funds to cover food and health centre costs as well as a collection of basic supplies for mothers and their newborns.
In a peer-reviewed article published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the use of “Baby Bundle Gifts” in the Milne Bay Province has resulted in an 80 per cent increase in the number of expectant mothers receiving medical assistance during labour, and has seen the death rate drop by a staggering 78 per cent.
In a country that faces the second highest maternal mortality rate in the Asia Pacific region after Afghanistan, the findings bring hope to global efforts to address the Sustainable Development Goals of reducing maternal deaths around the world.
Over the past five years, we have continued to work with Dr Kirby in Papua New Guinea, along with other experienced doctors and midwives from Australia and various Pacific nations including the Solomon Island, Indonesia, Vanuatu and East Timor. Every project we support is underpinned by scientific evidence, and we aim to evaluate all our project outcomes.
However, we still have a substantial task ahead. There are a great many barriers to tackle both directly and indirectly. Barriers highlighting layers of disadvantage ranging from geographical remoteness and a lack of maternal health education, through to the underlying issue of women’s rights and sexual violence against women in communities, all need to be addressed. Further, this needs to be a global agenda with public and private partnerships driving it together.