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Midwives: The unsung heroes working in silence for Rohingya refugees

  • Published at 09:13 am October 18th, 2018
WT_Oct 18, 2018
Photos: Courtesy

Midwives providing much needed maternal an neonatal healthcare in times of crisis.

The day I met Airin Akhter, a young midwife in her early twenties, she had been awake for three nights in a row. Three babies were delivered by her the previous night and another one the day before that. But the energy she radiated gave no such hint. I asked Airin, “How do you manage to work like this?” 

She smiled and replied, “It has become my common routine nowadays.”  

Undoubtedly, her job as a professional midwife can get a bit intense from time to time. The fact of the matter is that the circumstances are now a bit extraordinary in Ukhia—caused by the earlier upsurge of Rohingya refugee camps. Ukhia and Teknaf are the sub-districts widely known for becoming habitats of more than one million Rohingya refugees. While only a year ago it was just half a million, that number has doubled after August 25, 2017. Around 436,000 Rohingyas fled from Myanmar when the military launched a brutal crackdown, which the UN has titled a "textbook case of ethnic cleansing". 

In the earlier days when the crisis had just begun, Airin and Shagata Dey, her classmate from BRAC University, were both recruited by “Hope Foundation”. It is an NGO which has been serving the local community for years and is now working intensely to aid Rohingya refugees. Airin and Shagata’s duty station is located at Palongkhali, one of the unions that have become a shelter for the refuge seeking Rohingyas. Airin and Shagata joined Palongkhali Union Health and Family Welfare Centre (PUNHFWC) as midwives after their final exam. They told me that other students from their class are also working in Cox’s Bazar now. 

Altogether, 148 midwifery graduates from BRAC University have been recruited by different organizations to work in temporary medical facilities placed in the refugee camps or in nearby healthcare centres. All of them are working in the same region with the same goal, to manage the immediate maternity and neonatal health crisis which the migrants are facing every day. So far, an estimated 3,200 normal vaginal deliveries took place in the camp areas with the help of these newly graduated midwives. This would mean that each midwife has delivered approximately 25 babies in the last six months.  

In a country like Bangladesh where the doctor to patient ratio is evidently scary, ensuring enough physicians for an influx of refugee migrants is rather impossible. During this crisis, midwives such as Airin and Shagata have proven to be very useful. They are professionally trained to attend pregnant women and their babies. The number of successful deliveries they have performed suggests that the midwifery graduates are skilled in handling critical cases.

“The healthcare centre, which also caters to the local population, runs 24/7 and provides antenatal as well as postnatal care,” Airin informed. Palongkhali camp, Jamtoli camp and Kutupalong camp are all more or less close to PUNHFWC. Patients from all of the above mentioned areas are often seeking medical attention from this centre. Kutupalong camp alone is hosting about 80 thousand families and more than half a million Rohingya refugees. According to Save the Children, 48,000 babies will be born by the end of this year in the camps. That makes an average of 130 babies every day. No wonder why midwives are so busy!

The young midwives admit that there are different challenges when it comes to working with such a destitute community as the Rohingyas. When asked what these challenges were, Shagata Dey replied, “They are very adamant by nature. You can’t simply convince them to come to us for delivery. They would prefer to give birth at home and not come to a healthcare facility, where all the necessary equipment is easily available for any case of emergency.” 

Airin said, “Helping them realize why they need to adopt family planning to have a better future is a huge challenge.” 

“We are often telling them to adopt family planning methods. It is difficult to convince them because they lack proper education, they have adopted a conservative life style and most importantly, the male member of the family alone decides what everyone will do,” added Shagata

“Then how do you convince them?” I asked. 

She answered, “Well, we had to study counseling as part of our midwifery curriculum at BRAC University. It has proven to be very useful now. Besides, ‘Community Engagement’ was also a part of our graduation program. We had to learn how to approach and convince an unwilling community member to avail services from us. We had to learn practically how to preach family planning to those who don’t have proper understanding of such ideas. That practice has also helped us to develop counseling skills and have enough confidence to work at community levels.”

Kawser Ahmed is an Advocacy and Communications Specialist working with Developing Midwives Project.

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