“What can be more fulfilling than saving lives?”

Social entrepreneur fulfils promise to his mother to improve maternal care in rural Nepal

Phediguth village in Okhaldhunga where poor roads make access to health facilities difficult for complicated maternity cases. All photos: NARESH NEWAR

Stories of birthing are not the kind of conversation that children in Nepal usually have with their mothers. Surya Bhatta’s career path, however, took a new turn when his mother shared her own story of how she survived a near-death complication when she was giving birth to his elder sister.

His mother was married at 11, and had her first baby at 16. Access to health services in their home village in Dhading was limited at the time, and she suffered from severe postpartum complications.

“Luckily, my mother survived but we all know many Nepali mothers still face similar risks due to poor maternal health,” says Bhatta, now executive director of One Heart Worldwide (OHW), a US-based organisation working in Nepal.

At 34 Bhatta is proud to be playing a role to save the lives of mothers like his mother. Although the country has made vast improvements in reducing the maternal mortality rate from 539 per 100,000 live births 25 years ago to 240 today, it is still unacceptably high.

An estimated 2,000 new mothers still die in Nepal every year —  most of them because health posts are not properly equipped and staffed. The maternal mortality rate also went up in 2020 because the lockdown and pandemic prevented many mothers from getting to hospitals or birthing centres.

Bhatta and his colleagues have been working to improve maternal neonatal health care, and with a 70-strong team is setting up birthing centres and hospitals in Nepal’s most remote districts to upgrade care for mothers and babies.

Starting from five villages of Baglung in 2010, One Heart has expanded to 21 districts and helped renovate and equip more than 500 birthing centres in 164 municipalities where road access is still limited. The centres work with local municipalities on a cost-sharing public-private-partnership formula.

Many government health posts in rural municipality wards are under-resourced and often struggle to even buy standard maternity delivery beds and lifesaving equipment. There is inadequate infrastructure for pre-natal, delivery and post-natal care, and a chronic shortage of trained midwives in rural areas.

Nurses are not trained to handle complicated cases during and after delivery, and as frontline maternity workers face the wrath of local communities when mothers and babies die.

Bhatta and his team have zeroed in on training nurses at health posts to become skilled birth attendants, an intervention that directly saves lives. One Heart’s trained nurses and renovated birthing centres now care for more than 72,000 pregnant women across Nepal annually.

“Even during the pandemic rural municipalities were able to find resources to share half the cost of construction to renovate the birthing centres,” says Bhatta who works in partnership with local governments and community groups.

Bhatta sets program priorities after consultation with local elected representatives, tries to raise money locally, and then tops it up by competing globally for international grants. He says, “We can’t make our people always dependant on international aid. We need to be innovative by taking risks with new ideas.”

The partnership approach for upgrading birthing centres through cost-sharing is innovative, and one that encourages local ownership, clearly outlining outcomes. It went ahead because local governments under Nepal’s new federal structure were willing to start implementation immediately.

“Entrepreneurship is needed in the social sector not for profit making, but for creating quality service that can go up to scale,” explains Bhatta. “Social entrepreneurship is all about evidence-based work that guide organisations to reduce risks and help improve through sustainable local health systems. There are challenges in Nepal, but there are so many opportunities to overcome them through partnerships like this.”

Bhatta makes a case for Nepalis to return home after higher education overseas, just as he himself did after graduating from Dartmouth in the United States, fulfilling the promise he had made to his mother that he would make a difference for as many Nepali mothers like her as possible.

He says, “I am proud of the team we have built, I feel we are making a difference especially for rural communities. What can be more fulfilling than helping save lives?

  • Most read