For refugee women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), pregnancy can be a dangerous and daunting experience.

In the DRC, where more than 96,000 babies die within their first month of life, the situation can quickly turn from one of joy to a matter of life and death – especially for refugee women who do not have access to adequate maternal health facilities.

More than 530,000 refugees, mainly from Burundi, South Sudan and Central African Republic, now live in the DRC in addition to 4.5 million internally displaced people.

The DRC’s health services are facing enormous challenges due to the large number of displaced people, the limited capacity, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of qualified and motivated staff and difficulties in accessing logistics and supplies.

Without access to essential health services, women can be left with no other choice but to travel long distances to seek medical help or to give birth without professional support.

Debra O’Neill, Australia for UNHCR’s Strategic Development Director, was moved when she was shown a photo of a ‘birthing chair’ – literally just an office chair that had been sticky-taped together. She was told mothers were also giving birth on the banks of rivers due to a lack of facilities.

“As a mother, that really resonated with me,” Debra says.

Newly arrived South Sudanese refugees cross a wooden bridge on the way to their new home to the refugee settlement in Biringi Ituri province, DRC. © UNHCR/S.Modola

“I started to understand the challenges expectant and new mothers faced and saw these challenges reflected in high maternal and neonatal mortality statistics.”

In response to this crisis, Australian not-for-profit health fund Teachers Health began a three-year partnership with Australia for UNHCR in 2018 to support maternal and neonatal care in the DRC.

Together with Teachers Health, Australia for UNHCR donors have been delivering healthcare services including lifesaving antenatal, obstetric and postnatal care for local and refugee women, as well as transport to hospital for more complicated births.

We have supported the construction of small health outposts in villages like Lembo, and provided equipment such as birthing chairs, torches to tend to night-time deliveries, infant incubating heaters and portable ultrasound machines, as well mosquito nets, anti-malaria medication and iron supplements.

The impact has been direct and life-changing, with the neonatal mortality rate across the four refugee camps now five times lower than it was it 2016. 

Between July 2018 and December 2019, almost 2,000 safe and clean deliveries were provided by skilled birth attendants in health facilities at Inke refugee camp alone.

Fabien Faivre, UNHCR Associate External Relations Officer in Kinshasa, says new mothers in the refugee and Congolese host communities had been at risk due to prohibitive healthcare costs and a lack of access to services and skilled professionals.

“Through UNHCR’s maternal and newborn healthcare programmes, women were able to enjoy a safe pregnancy and delivery and reduce the mortality risks faced by newborns,” Fabien says.

Australia for UNHCR’s Strategic Development Director, Debra O’Neill, met with mothers in the Democratic Republic of Congo to hear about their experiences. © Australia for UNHCR

UNHCR has also equipped four refugee camps in north and south Ubangi provinces with solar panels and batteries.

The energy is helping to provide clean and much-needed additional power to run the medical equipment provided by Teachers Health including refrigerators, incubators and ultrasounds. 

“For people in the west it may be very normal to have electricity. But in some of the camps there is no electricity, even for the health centres,” Fabien says. 

“The fact that there is electricity now means skilled health practitioners can do night-time deliveries, which is having a real impact.”

Outside the camps, funding supported essential medicines, basic equipment and staff salaries for eight centres, targeting more than 20,000 children and over 4,200 breastfeeding mothers.

Refugee and mother of nine Josie-Esther says before the health centre was established in the village of Lembo, she saw women dying from giving birth.

“Before there was no delivery bed, no mosquito nets. Women would give birth before they could get to a health centre and had to bring their own mats to birth on. There was no electricity and children were dying,” Josie-Esther says.

“Before it was darkness, now it is light.”

Solange, 24, is originally from the Central African Republic and is one of the many refugees supported through the partnership between Teachers Health and Australia for UNHCR.
© Australia for UNHCR

Women and girls make up around half of any refugee or internally displaced population. They are also among the most at risk of discrimination, violence and exploitation.

UNHCR supports displaced women and girls to rebuild their lives through healthcare programs, access to education, counselling and legal support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, livelihoods projects and skills training. 

With your help, displaced women and girls can thrive, not just survive. 

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