Monday, 11 July 2011

A complicated birth

I had two complicated births. Monkey was a baby with a big head (still has) that caused all sorts of problems that needed instrumental intervention (of the forceps, not the guitar solo, variety) to be delivered. Missy Woo was a much more straightforward delivery until the point she was born and then I very carelessly lost 2 litres (4 pints) of blood in the immediate aftermath.

The reason I can be so flippant about these experiences is that I was lucky. I was surrounded by skilled professional attendants who knew how to ensure our well-being and prevent long term ill-effects. I was monitored and risks assessed during pregnancy, I was appropriately advised and staff adequately prepared for any risks.

Martin Bell with the community chief of Nzara, who fled from their village after LRA attacks
I was also lucky in that I gave birth in a country where the healthcare system has its detractors, but in truth, the maternity care is first class. Or at least it is, compared to the care received by mothers and babies in some countries. A case in point is South Sudan. On Saturday, South Sudan was born, becoming the world's newest nation, finally separating that region from the rest of the country.

The birth of this nation has itself been complicated. Its conception was 20 years in the making, borne of a long and bloody civil war. Conflict has ravaged the country for far longer but now there is a peace agreement,  and following a referendum where 99% of its citizens wanted independence, finally there is hope that the creation of a new nation can give.

Conditions in South Sudan are however desperate. Decades of conflict have taken their toll on infrastructure and society. It will have one of the worst maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. Some hospitals stand empty, having been damaged beyond repair during the war with no money to rebuild them. There is only one children's hospital in the country. In 2005, there was just one midwife in the whole nation. A 15 year old girl in South Sudan has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than of completing her education.

On Friday, I attended a UNICEF bloggers conference to highlight the plight of this new nation. Martin Bell, he of the white suit, spoke engagingly and movingly of his visit with Mia Farrow to South Sudan in March in his role as a UNICEF ambassador. He spoke of the nation's complicated birth and a phrase that stuck with me was that he said it needs intensive care from birth to help it thrive.

Its problems are many and varied. There is a refugee problem with South Sudanese moving back from the north where they no longer felt comfortable or welcome as well as people leaving some of the towns and villages along the border with Sudan where there has been fighting and Sudan is still threatening to take up arms over border disputes. Much of the country is quite remote and underdeveloped and where there are people displaced from their homes, there are issues with access to clean water. In Western Equatoria, there is a huge problem with a Ugandan militia called the Lord's Resistance Army who operate by raiding villages and steal children to become servants, guards and later soldiers and sex slaves, causing more to flee their homes. Some children are forced to kill members of their own family so they cannot go back to their own families. Shocking.

Girl collects water from a water pump provided by UNICEF. 2000 people rely on this pump.
Over half of this new nation will be children, around four million in total. They are the future of this new nation and yet, they face a fight to survive even if they do survive infancy (infant mortality is 10%). It will have the lowest proportion of children who are fully immunised (2%). Most South Sudanese children also lack access to education - most of them have never set foot in a classroom.

All this against a backdrop of a wider region facing its worst drought in 50 years, meaning neighbouring countries are less able to give South Sudan some much needed support. The drought is affecting South Sudan too, although its effects are not being as keenly felt there.

Martin Bell stressed that there is much optimism and hope in South Sudan. On paper, the country should not be poor because it has oilfields and yet, this nation needs to be built almost brick by brick and to receive proper humanitarian aid to those who need it most. It may be the difference between South Sudan thriving instead of collapsing. In that respect, UNICEF is key in these efforts because of its association with the UN and its work focused on children, since they do form such a large proportion of the population.

Motorcycle ambulance provided by UNICEF.
Their work, to date, has funded 17 motorcycle ambulances which allows women suffering complications in labour in remote areas to be transported quickly and safely along dirt tracks to hospital. They also provide the "school in a box" (as per my Silent Sunday picture yesterday) which contains enough equipment to set up an outdoor classroom for 40 pupils. They need to train 50,000 teachers in the next 4 years. They need to extend what they are already doing to reach more people. They need to continue to support schemes that look after children traumatised by experiences, to retrain child soldiers and reintegrate them with their families. They need to ensure there are more skilled attendants at births and provide more Mama kits, which provide clean delivery supplies for women in childbirth to help ensure safe delivery of their babies where access to hospital is not possible. They need to ensure more people have access to clean water.

UNICEF can only perform work like this if it receives sufficient money to widen its work. Its work is fully funded by voluntary contributions, not by the UN budget. Children of South Sudan urgently need our help now. To support UNICEF’s child survival projects in South Sudan text ‘SUDAN’ to 70007 (to give £5) or go to

It is easy to become disaster fatigued and think of Africa as a single entity. It's not - it's over 50 different countries on a continent that is vast; problems arise in different places at different times and for different reasons. South Sudan, as I said earlier, has had a complicated birth; the victim of a peculiar set of circumstances. It needs a bit of intensive care to survive. Their children need our help to survive childbirth and infancy in desperate conditions, to get an education and to give their nation a bright future. The least we can do is to offer a bit of help, to continue the hope that has been generated by South Sudan's creation, so it flourishes and grows as any healthy infant does.

 Please take a few minutes to watch Martin Bell's report of his trip to South Sudan.

Photos by Veronique de Viguerie/Reportage by Getty Images for UNICEF, who gave me permission to use these photographs. 

UNICEF kindly paid my travel expenses to attend this event.
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