Meeting Zin Mar

What initially struck me about Zin Mar Lwin’s story was that, at almost 10 years my junior, she knew grief that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Zin Mar Lwin at home in Thabung community, Myanmar with 4-year old daughter, May.

At the age of 24, Zin Mar had given birth twice in her life: to a daughter May, now four-years-old, and a few years later in November 2016, to a baby boy.

Zin Mar chose to give birth at home. The closest health centre was hard to get to and she didn’t feel the need to make the trek there. At least at home she would be in familiar surroundings and have her loved ones close by for support during labour.

Labour itself was uneventful and Zin Mar’s baby boy arrived into the world seemingly healthy and strong.

Zin Mar shares more about what happened next.

“The first day the baby took my breastmilk but after that he was sleeping all the time and he wouldn’t eat. We tried to feed him honey.”

Three days after he was born, Zin Mar’s describes how her baby’s skin turn yellow and he started convulsing. Neighbours, as well as her parents came to try and help but others in her community said there was nothing that could be done.

“So, I let him be and just watched him. It lasted for about seven hours and then at 4 am my baby died,” Zin Mar recounts.

When health systems fail

In March 2018, I traveled to Zin Mar’s village and sat with her as she recounted this heartbreaking story. Like so many others, I asked the obvious question: “Why didn’t you take him to a health clinic?”

She explained that getting to the clinic required traveling by boat and the water levels were so low at that time of the year, that it just wasn’t possible.

I can attest to the fact that getting to Zin Mar’s village was indeed a journey. While the water levels were slightly low when I visited in March, boat travel across the Irrawaddy river (the largest river in Myanmar) was possible for at least part of the trip. We used motorbikes to get to the river and then crossed by boat. Once on the other side, we rode the bikes again for the final leg to Zin Mar’s home. It took around two hours.

As visitors to the region, we had access to various modes of transportation that mothers like Zin Mar often don’t, making any possibility of them getting to a medical professional during the dry season—October to May—unviable.

Access to a skilled health worker closer to home may have also prevented the death of Zin Mar’s baby boy.

These measures, which seem so very simple, can mean the difference between life and death for mothers and their babies living in remote communities. In fact, most deaths among children under five can be prevented. The first 1000 days of a baby’s life, from conception to two years old, is critical in preventing or treating malnutrition and common illnesses through simple and cost-effective solutions including: regular pre-natal checkups, exclusive breastfeeding and support for breastfeeding mothers and access to skilled health-workers.

As I write this story, I’m keenly aware of the tiny but mighty kicks of my second baby girl growing healthy and strong inside of me. I am also keenly aware of how miraculous and complicated pregnancy and child birth is and how, in the blink of an eye, something can go wrong.

Writer Alicia Dubay at home with her almost-three-year-old daughter Seraphina. Photo: Paul Bettings.

My first pregnancy was not without its complications and there’s a chance that these issues may reoccur again. Am I worried? Naturally, yes. I think for most parents, worry becomes a bottomless pit from the moment you hold your newborn for the first time.

But I know that the medical care I am receiving here in Canada is a safeguard against the worst possible outcomes. This could easily be the opposite if I lived in a rural community in Myanmar where maternal mortality is 282 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Big improvements for mothers

Khaing Zin Tun, a World Vision Trained auxiliary midwife, assists Khin Thin Thin Hlang in vaccinating children under five.

Today, Zin Mar’s village is better equipped for pregnancy, childbirth, as well as potential emergencies thanks to the 1000 Day Journey project. A light blue building just a few minutes’ walk from Zin Mar’s home houses the community’s very own health clinic. Here, women can safely give birth while being attended to by a trained health worker, children can receive immunizations against deadly but preventable diseases and mothers can receive support for exclusive breastfeeding, as well as challenges they may face.

The community has also received high speed boat ambulances so that when emergencies strike, rapid transportation is available.

Now, when their babies are sick, mothers in this region of Myanmar are no longer forced to sit by helplessly.

Through the 1000 Day Journey initiative, more pregnant women and babies are being empowered to thrive and flourish where they live. The initiative, led by World Vision and funded by the Government of Canada, seeks to ensure mothers and their children receive quality health care in the first 1000 days, from conception to the child’s second birthday.

The initiative is making strides in four countries where maternal and child health is most impacted: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Kenya and Tanzania.

A delicious lunch spread, prepared by Zin Mar Lwin and her family members. Photo: Alicia Dubay.

Let’s help even more moms and babies

Zin Mar crosses my mind very often. We are alike in more ways than we are different. We are both mothers who love our children with all of our hearts and souls. We want to see our families thrive. We want to live happy and fulfilling lives.

The only difference between us, really, is where we live. And that is not fair.

It breaks my heart that only half of women worldwide receive the recommended amount of care during pregnancy and nearly 31 million births are unattended by a skilled health worker. 

Approximately 2.6 million children died within their first month of life in 2016 and their mothers now face a life in which they can’t admire their baby’s sweet miniature toes or hear that hilarious uncontrollable baby giggle or witness those first wobbly steps.

But we can do something about it. If you’re like me, and you believe that every mom and baby has the right to Canadian-quality health care no matter who they are and where they live, pledge your support by signing the petition today.