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A tale of two mothers

The Hamilton Spectator by Dena Thomas 10 May 2013

My friend has no voice and no choice about how often she’s expected to sexually serve her husband. Nor does she have any prospects for an education beyond grade 8. I have the respect and consideration of my husband, and have been able to pursue my Master’s Degree in Public Health.

Simply because she is a woman, my friend is considered a disposable commodity. She lives a life almost completely devoid of independence and access to basic human rights. I feel valued as a significant contributor in my family and community.

Considering we’re both living in the 21st Century, the contrasts between my friend’s life and my own are difficult to comprehend. The main reason for our different lives? My friend was born—and has lived her entire life—in a highly patriarchal culture in East Africa; I was fortunate enough to have been born and to have lived my life here in Canada.

Let’s further consider the discrepancies from a women’s health perspective. In Canada, we are very sensitive to—and informed about—breast cancer. The Canadian Cancer society estimates that 14 Canadian women die from breast cancer each day. Consequently we pour our resources out in response. A single day’s fundraising event, the CIBC Run for the Cure, raises upwards of $33 million dollars each year.

Contrast that reality with World Health Organization statistics that reveal every other minute a women dies from complications from pregnancy or childbirth. Over 99% of these deaths occur in developing countries. The unfortunate consequence is that this high rate of maternal mortality leaves over one-million child orphans behind. Without a mother to care for their needs, these little ones are ten times more likely to die within two years of their mother’s death. But how many Canadians are aware of—or responsive to—this tragedy?

The sad truth is that these statistics are largely a reflection of the injustices wrought by acute poverty. Health care is simply unavailable, inaccessible, unaffordable, and frequently of poor quality to women in the developing world. Bleeding, infections, unsafe abortion and obstructed labour, are some of the preventable complications that lead to death. Can any one of us here in Canada imagine accepting such conditions?

Some may argue that it is a fact of life that premature death for the poor is unavoidable—or even necessary—to combat rapidly rising global population growth, which our world doesn’t have the resources to sustain. But most would agree that it is inhuman to allow suffering, loneliness and despair as an accepted condition of life, when we have the ability and resources to help. Just imagine if it was your mother in pain, slowly dying in isolation, with no knowledge of—or access to—the kind of basic health care that provides a lifeline to survival.

Canadians have proven that we can dedicate resources and attention to health care issues relevant to us. With Mother’s Day just around the corner we have a timely opportunity to consider the discrepancies that exist between the lives of women in the developing world, and our response to their needs as a global community.

Dena has over 18 years’ experience in health care at Hamilton Health Sciences. She has worked and lived in Uganda, Africa as Administrative Co-ordinator for Save the Mothers (, an organization founded by Canadian obstetrician Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese that is working to overcome the injustice of preventable maternal mortality in the developing world. Dena is currently working on her MPH at the University of Waterloo.