For Christa Mulenga, a mother from rural Zambia, the birth of her daughter Blessings was just that, but the situation was not quite as expected.
While experiencing labor pains, Christa began her journey to the nearest hospital, a walk of 25 kilometers (about 15.5 miles) from her village in Mbala District. She wanted to deliver her baby at a facility with a skilled birth attendant, but she did not make it there. Despite her determination, she gave birth to Blessings on her way to the hospital.
I heard Christa tell her story at a recent Urban Mothers’ Walk organized by the Zambia Alliance for Maternal Neonatal and Child Health (MNCH Alliance) as she made a passionate plea for increased access to health facilities for mothers, newborns, and children. We had just finished walking 7 kilometers (just over 4 miles) in solidarity with rural women, and I, feeling exhausted, could only imagine what it would have felt like to walk that distance—or even longer—while in labor!
Christa’s experience is not uncommon in Zambia. Many women face a long journey to a health clinic for delivery. Yet even after they arrive, the facility might lack the staff needed to attend to them quickly.
Fortunately, Christa’s story had a happy ending, but that is not always the case. While Zambia has made good progress in caring for mothers and reducing maternal deaths, its maternal mortality rate remains stubbornly high at 280 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Taking steps to save lives
The MNCH Alliance was formed to address these issues. This newly launched advocacy coalition, comprised of diverse civil society organizations and currently chaired by PATH, works to improve health outcomes for mothers, newborns, children, and adolescents in Zambia through education, coordination, and advocacy.
The mother’s walk was one of the Alliance’s first major events. In a united voice, walk participants called for additional rural health facilities to ensure all Zambians are within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of a facility that is adequately staffed and equipped with the proper supplies and medicines.
The Alliance also recognizes that even though the situation is better for mothers in urban areas where care is more accessible, those areas face challenges too.
I saw this firsthand in a recent visit to the Chipata Hospital outside Lusaka, an urban health center that was recently upgraded to a hospital. There, I came face-to-face with the reality of staff shortages and infrastructure limitations:
- A sea of young faces waiting patiently in long lines in the child health ward.
- Women in labor sharing beds with mothers holding their brand new babies in the maternity ward.
- Overstretched staff diligently carrying on with their duties. (Staff sent off-site for training are often not replaced, leading to stress on the health workforce.)
A united call for action
The good news is, the government is listening.
The MNCH Alliance has engaged with the government on these issues, and the walk received support from the Zambian Ministry of Community Development Mother and Child Health, namely through the Honourable Minister Emerine Kabanshi, who also participated.
At the walk, Minister Kabanshi remarked on the progress made so far in reducing preventable deaths of mothers and encouraged a collective effort from government, civil society, and communities to continue to improve health for Zambian mothers and children.
PATH Country Director and MNCH Alliance Chair Dr. Nanthalile Mugala called for additional resources from the government and other stakeholders to achieve the Alliance’s commitment to ending preventable mother and child deaths in Zambia.
“We are at a unique moment in our country’s history in which we can build on the significant progress made to ensure that every mother and every child has access to high-quality health care,” Dr. Mugala said. “The MNCH Alliance calls upon our government to introduce comprehensive, evidence-based services and programs—and to back those programs up with increased funding—to ensure mothers can safely deliver their babies and give those children a healthy start at life.”
As Minister Kabanshi walked with the mothers and community groups, it was clear that Zambia was taking a step forward to work with the MNCH Alliance and PATH to ensure mothers like Christa get better access to the care they deserve, when they need it most.
- Monica Mutesa is a senior advocacy and policy officer in the Zambia office at PATH.