The smile on the face of Cathrine Sanhanga belies the heartbreak she has faced. Born in the village of Zindi in eastern Zimbabwe, she was married at age 14. Almost immediately she started having babies–and losing them.
In all Sanhanga delivered 11 children. 8 died before reaching the age of two, mostly of malaria, measles and diarrhea. She admits to knowing nothing about how to protect her babies from the maladies that took them from her.
“It’s so painful, so much so that at times I can’t believe it,” she said through a translator.
Sanhanga was speaking at an event sponsored by the international development organization Plan Canada in advance of a summit on maternal health in Toronto, Saving Every Woman Every Child: Within Arm’s Reach. Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the summit as a follow-up to an initiative announced at the Muskoka G-8 summit in 2010 in which Canada pledged $2.85 billion towards maternal health programs.
Cathrine Sanhanga is a human face representing awful statistics. Every year almost 293-thousand women worldwide die during pregnancy and childbirth. About 6.6 million children succumb annually to preventable disease.
As bad as they are, those numbers have been roughly cut in half since 1990.
Rosemary McCarney, CEO of Plan Canada, says the Muskoka initiative has helped make further improvements.
“It’s leading to clear, validated results that show tangible progress on the ground already,” she said.
Ottawa’s money allowed Plan to expand programs in five countries: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali and Zimbabwe.
Angeline Gwasir, a Zimbabwean nurse and midwife, explained how health workers are being deployed into rural villages, encouraging expectant mothers to come into clinics to give birth rather than risking potentially unsanitary conditions at home.
“It’s a big difference,” said Gwasir. “More and more mothers are delivering in the institutions.”
The Harper government has made maternal health the centrepiece of its international development programs. Participating NGOs give it good reviews.
The President of World Vision Canada Dave Toycen said the Muskoka Initiative raised $40 billion worldwide.
“There’s just more attention being paid, not just at doing things but accountability and measurement,” he said.
Toycen said measuring true progress remains difficult, especially given that many of the women and children most in need are the most difficult to reach—in war torn nations like Congo and Afghanistan.
Critics say the maternal health initiative ignores a key element: access to family planning and abortion, and they blame the influence of the Conservative Party’s base. The McLeod Group, an Ottawa-based organization of former civil servants, recently posted a blog calling the Muskoka Inititiative “grandstanding”, alleging that “it also conceals our cuts on family planning and access to safe abortion.”
For Cathrine Sanhanga, though, the new money from Canada has made a difference in her life. She said she now has a better idea of how to care for her three surviving children and is in training to teach other mothers, giving them the benefit of her hard-won lessons.
© Shaw Media, 2014