Born by the roadside in Nepal
Nothing could be more symbolic of the misplaced priorities of all three tiers of government in Nepal than the sight of women giving birth by the wayside at a time when politicians are inaugurating yet another view-tower in a lavish function.
As a reporter based in Bajura district in Nepal’s rugged northwestern mountains, I have see many mothers with complicated pregnancies being carried on stretchers to hospitals. Usually, they are women who have been in prolonged and agonising labour. Many do not make it, and die along the way.
I was working on a story on maternal mortality when I came across a photograph from four years ago of a woman giving birth along a trail. I tweeted it on 26 March, and the image immediately went viral because it coincided with the inauguration by Pushpa Kamal Dahal of a nine-storey view-tower in Rolpa district.
बाटोमा यसरी बच्चा जन्माउछन्, दुर्गमका महिला pic.twitter.com/sZfmFmzv3F— Prakash Singh (@prakashbajura) March 26, 2022
Even though that photograph was from some years ago, the situation with maternal and infant deaths in Bajura has not improved. For Nepal’s netizens, that symbol of neglect was in stark contrast with the view-tower building spree across the country.
In fact Bajura has one of the worst socio-economic and health indicators in Nepal. Just in the past three years, eight women with difficult pregnancies have died while being transported to the district’s only hospital in Martadi. These were just ones that were officially recorded, there are surely many more mothers in far-flung villages of this district who did not make it.
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The mother and baby in my photograph that went viral in social media were the lucky ones. The mother’s name was Tara Luhar from Budiganga Municipality, and after running into them on a village trail, I took the photo after taking their consent.
Although heavily pregnant, Tara had been doing all household chores herself, including raising her other children and taking care of the livestock and farm. No female community health volunteer had visited her home and she did not know that she needed pre-natal checkups, and the need to deliver in a health post or hospital. Most women in Bajura’s traditional families are banished to cowsheds during childbirth.
It was only when her labour dragged on for four days that neighbours and relatives decided to carry Tara to the health post in a stretcher. During the journey lasting several hours, the baby came out and into the dusty trail. Tara simply carried her baby, and walked back home.
This week, after the photograph made her famous, I called Tara Luhar. She said the baby was now four years old and they were both were healthy. Her husband, who was working in India, had died at about the time her son was born. As single mother, she now struggles to make ends meet.
“Most of our births in Bajura are at home, there are very few institutional deliveries,” explains Bimala Pandey of the Bichchyan Health Post in Bajura. “There are many cases of women giving birth while on their way. We have to refer the complicated cases to Achham.”
Nepal has taken dramatic strides in reducing its maternal mortality ratio (MMR). It has come down from 880 per 100,000 live births in 1980 to less than 200 in 2019. But maternal deaths have gone up again in the past two years because of the drop in institutional deliveries during the pandemic.
Bajura’s maternal mortality ratio in 2014 was much higher than the national average: 380. The district ranks at the bottom among Nepal’s districts in the Human Development Index (HDI), with just 0.364 against a national average of 0.602 in 2019. The infant mortality ratio has improved, but is still at 27 deaths per 1,000, mainly babies who die within a month of being born.
Although the photograph of the mother giving birth by the side of the road sparked outrage on Nepal’s cybersphere, for Bajura it was just another tragic reminder of its poor state of healthcare. Three mothers die at childbirth every day in Nepal, and in Bajura there is not a month that goes by without news of yet another mother who does not make it while giving birth by the roadside.
The high cost of ambulance and lack of political connections to get medical evacuation by helicopter under the President’s Program for Women’s Upliftment, most families have to physically carry pregnant women with complicated pregnancies.
Last month, 23-year-old Parbati Buda of Himal Rural Municpality had her baby while being carried for over six hours to the local health post. Buda was lucky to survive. In the past year two women died while being carried to Achham – the travel by stretcher and jeep took too long, and the family had waited till it was too late to save them.
Because local health posts are not properly equipped to deal with births in which a caesaerian section may be required, many families try to take them to Bayalpata Hosptial in adjoining Achham district, which has a dedicated maternity ward and surgery.
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Prakash Singh is editor in chief of Badimalika Khabar in Bajura.