In the middle of sandy Tharparkar: An unsafe desert for newborns

No woman should have to live in fear, and no baby should be so ruthlessly denied a chance of survival and a good, healthy life.

No woman should have to live in fear, and no baby should be so ruthlessly denied a chance of survival and a good, healthy life.

The Muslim Vibe is supporting Penny Appeal’s Fragile Lives campaign this March and April. Penny Appeal will be providing pregnant mothers, new-born babies, and children with health and nutrition support in Pakistan and Kenya. By raising £3,500 we will support mobile screening services which will reach over 25,000 mothers and babies to screen for, and detect malnutrition. The UK Government will match your donation, helping us to make DOUBLE the difference to mothers and babies in Pakistan and Kenya.

Over 400,000 babies die every year in Pakistan before celebrating their fifth birthday. A huge majority of these deaths occur in the first three months of life, from preventable causes. The effects of the persistent drought on pregnant and lactating women have been identified as one of the main reasons for the alarming child mortality rate.

This is the second time I’ve undertaken the arduous journey from the cold and windy north of the UK towards Sindh, a south-eastern province of Pakistan. I ended up in the middle of Tharparkar desert. Despite the fact that I have spent over 30 years of my life in Pakistan and have had the chance to travel from one end of the country to another, this particular trip turned out to be one of the most astonishing of my life.

This time, the purpose of my visit was to understand the dynamics and complexities of the health-related challenges being faced by the people of Tharparkar. I have heard a lot about the fragile state of being a mother or new-born baby in this area through different media reports. I was also aware of the hostile health situation from my previous work in Pakistan, but it was a complete eye-opener to be deep inside interior Sindh and see the situation for myself.

In a recent Global Hunger Index, worryingly Pakistan ranked 107th out of 118. Tharparkar and Umerkot are two of the twenty-nine districts of Sindh province in Pakistan. Tharparkar is the largest district of the provinces in terms of its total geographical coverage. Despite it being the only fertile desert in the world, Tharparkar’s inhabitants are living at the lowest end of the Human Development Index of Sindh. Drought, a lack of basic health facilities, a huge shortage of food, an absence of clean and safe drinking water, a lack of education and infrastructure, and unemployment issues are some of the huge challenges of this area.

Mums and Babies

Tharparkar and Umerkot have hundreds of hidden, untold stories of mothers who have lost their babies in pregnancy or infancy. As I walked into a village in the middle of the Sindhi desert, I knew I would hear tales of tragedy, but I was eager to find out what we could do to help.

There are tales after tales of newborns and small children who are battling a war against hunger, making life nothing short of a race for survival. One major issue for pregnant women and mothers is the lack of available, affordable, and quality healthcare means they often deliver their babies at home in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

One of the major reasons behind these deaths is malnutrition and lack of basic health facilities such as skilled birth attendants.

According to an estimate, around 35% of the infant deaths each year are because of malnutrition. Malnutrition is a condition that results from eating a diet in which one or more nutrients are either not enough or are too much, such that the diet causes health problems. It may involve calories, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, or minerals.

Half of all children in Pakistan are chronically malnourished. This situation means there are not only low rates of child survival, but it also affects long-term physical and mental development, including the potential of future disabilities. Mothers are similarly malnourished, perpetuating a negative development cycle and affecting the quality of their breastfeeding. Immediate causes of this negative nutritional status of children in Pakistan include household poverty that leads to high levels of food insecurity, inability to purchase sufficient food or diverse types of food to ensure good vitamin and mineral intake, a lack of calories, and insufficient iron-rich foods and supplements during pregnancy.

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When it comes to pregnancy and labour, the situation in Tharparkar is even more complicated. The majority of adolescent and pregnant women are malnourished. That means their bodies are not strong enough to carry a baby full term, and the growing baby inside of them does not receive the nutrition required. This means women deliver premature and malnourished babies, many of whom do not survive past 28 days. A lot of women also have stillbirths due to complications during labour and the lack of skilled birth attendants. Unskilled birth attendants will support the delivery process, but if any complications arise such as excessive bleeding, they are unable to provide the basic care required. This reduces the chances of survival of the baby and puts the life of the mother at even greater risk.

I can’t even imagine how it must feel to be so scared for your own life and be aware of the high chances that your precious baby may also not survive. No woman should have to live in fear, and no baby should be so ruthlessly denied a chance of survival and a good, healthy life.

Pakistan is facing severe challenges in tackling health issues in general but when it comes to areas like Tharparkar and Umerkot, the challenges increase due to inaccessibility, severe levels of poverty, widespread unemployment, and a lack of basic infrastructure.

What can be done?

As Regional Lead for Asia and Interim Country Director for Pakistan, I want to work closely with both our teams on the ground and colleagues here in the UK to ensure we are developing robust programmes that are getting to the heart of some of the country’s biggest challenges. I will work hard to ensure we execute programmes that provide both short-term relief and long-term growth and resilience.

Penny Appeal has decided to tackle the issues faced by mothers and babies and provide immediate support to the people of Tharparkar and Umerkot, which are two of the most fragile districts of Pakistan. We will also deliver programmes to create long-term growth and development. Penny Appeal has already been working over the last several years to bring ease to the lives of the people living in the desert by providing easy solutions for accessing safe and clean drinking water. In addition to our existing work, we are planning to provide life-saving support to expectant mothers as well as malnourished children through a multidimensional health programme.

We will provide vital maternal care for Pakistan and Kenya’s poorest mothers and their babies by delivering good medical care and nutrition and working alongside local midwives and doctors. We are working closely with mothers and their families to educate and empower them, to help give their babies the best possible start to life.

Donate now until June 9th, 2019 and the UK government will match every donation £ for £, helping us to make double the impact.

To find out more, visit https://pennyappeal.org/appeal/fragile-lives