It appears the WI arrived in Malawi at a most auspicious time, just as President Bingu was elected to the Presidency of the African Union. This afternoon he returned home to much pomp and ceremony. Of course, his Vice President was there to greet him; The Right Honourable Joyce Banda, African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Safe Motherhood. I could not see if she was still wearing her WI brooch during the ceremony on tv, that she immediately pinned to her beautiful bight blue and white dress when I presented it to her this morning.
A meeting with this lady would brighten any day. She sees every glass half full rather than half empty. Maternal mortality rate has decreased since 2004 even though Malawi has the second highest death rate in Africa. But she begins with hope, the hope of saving more lives. As a wife and mother from a Malawian village, in her combined roles, she is determined to not only give the issue of maternal health high priority in government but she is also doing her job understanding completely the many difficulties women may have during pregnancy and childbirth.
At the meeting with her we told her of all we had seen and heard in the last 3 days; the issues of decision-making within the household, that the birth is imminent, the broken down bicycle ambulance, the lack of space and care when a woman gets to hospital and the abrupt ending of the funding for nurse midwife training. She was more than familiar with all we said and explained how she had set in motion programmes to teach the leader of a village the necessity for women to go to hospital as soon as possible in order to avoid complications, and that she should be helped to get there and cared for generally. This change of culture has already made an impact on maternal mortality numbers but there is still some way to go. When the women do go to hospital in time for the birth, sometimes 4-6 weeks before, there is nowhere for her to stay because the holding shelter is already overcrowded. Mrs Banda issued a plea for more holding rooms like this and at the same time, more midwives. As the funding for training has come to an end she wonders if there could be a sponsorship scheme to train the young men and women who would come forward but cannot afford the three thousand five hundred pounds required for the three year training. She genuinely seemed as bewildered as everyone else we had met when it came to the cutting of funds. She concluded by saying that overseas aid is still crucial to her country, thank you and please keep it coming.
After the photo session I invited the Honourable lady to become an Associate member of the WI to which she replied, "Yes, please".
Before our conversation with Mrs Banda we had met the Minister for Health who told us quite categorically that of course he knows the situation with maternal mortality was bad but it is getting better. He too is grateful for the aid that comes but also asks for its continuation. We raised issues of women's decision-making power, transport, enough and adequate hospitals and the lack of midwives. The majority of health aid comes from DFID (the UK Department for International Development)and we were left in no doubt that they hope after our election this will continue.
During a final meeting with DFID they explained that the allocation of the aid they give is determined by priorities set by Westminster. The current budget is 75 million pounds with plans to increase it to 80 million next year with maternal health being one of their top priorities. Crucially, we hope that after the election it will still be a priority for whichever party is in power. However with climate change impacting communities here and now, a budget must also be allocated to address these challenges, while keeping their committed funds to achieve the MDGs.
After all we're learning about the Millennium Development Goals and gender equality being vital to achieving each and all of them it was disappointing to say the least to learn that gender was not on DFIDs priority sheet which they presented to us, and when questioned about this they referred to one or two unnamed projects. We had hoped to see a stronger commitment to gender equality from our government.
So the trip is over; we have met some wonderful and dedicated people to whom the issue of maternal mortality is so important. Malawian people are so friendly and caring and they have been so pleased to see us. They say it has been an honour but I would say quite the contrary as we have been completely honoured to meet them in their beautiful country. We felt the welcome from "The Warm Heart of Africa".
The WI is coming home both informed and inspired as well as humbled.