Mary Akuol with her newborn son at the Juba III civilian protection camp. Photo credit: Kenneth Odiwuor/UNFPA
JUBA, South Sudan – Mary Akuol, 23, cradles her two-week old baby at the entrance of her family’s makeshift tent in Juba III, a civilian protection camp in South Sudan’s capital. A folded mattress takes up much of the space in the tent she shares with her husband and her two other children. The sweltering sun makes the conditions at the crowded camp even harder to bear.
Ms. Akuol was seven months pregnant when she escaped Bor State with her family after violence broke out between government and opposition forces in mid-December 2013. “We had to run to save our lives because there was too much killing. I was tired during the journey because the pregnancy was already big.”
Together, they travelled more than 200km on foot over four days. During that time, Ms. Akuol thought she would lose her baby. Fatigue was taking its toll, and her feet were beginning to swell. “We were just surviving on water, and I knew I would give birth to a dead baby, but I was lucky to reach the camp,” she recalls.
For Ms. Akuol, her healthy newborn son is a symbol of hope amid the ongoing violence.
Care in the direst circumstances
Only two days after arriving at the camp, Ms. Akuol was introduced to volunteer health workers from a maternity tent run by UNFPA and its partner, International Medical Corps. Throughout the rest of her pregnancy, she received regular check-ups from a UNFPA midwife.
Ms. Akuol also learned about family planning, reproductive health, breastfeeding and general child care, part of UNFPA’s efforts to protect mothers and newborns during the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.
When Ms. Akuol went into labour, her husband called the health volunteers who brought her to the clinic to give birth under the care of the UNFPA midwife.
Situation remains precarious
The warring parties recently signed a ceasefire, a sign of some political progress, but security remains precarious. Women like Ms. Akuol are still too afraid to leave the relative safety of the camps to go back home.
“I don’t know for how long I will stay at the camp because now it is my new home. I will keep visiting the clinic to seek help to bring up my baby,” she said.
According to the United Nations , the conflict has forced some 958,000 people from their homes and an estimated 4.9 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
With one of the highest maternal death rates in the world – one in seven women dies from pregnancy-related causes – women in South Sudan have extremely limited access to maternal health services, a situation exacerbated by the ongoing crisis.
Women do not stop giving birth during humanitarian emergencies, and maternal clinics like those operated by UNFPA and its partners are a critical resource for pregnant women.
“I attended the antenatal clinic for three months before I delivered my baby,” said Ms. Akuol. “It was helpful, and they gave me a lot of support during every visit. I’m lucky I found that help. I know many other women like me might not have been [as] lucky.”
UNFPA supplies emergency safe delivery and reproductive health kits to operating government health facilities, NGO partners, and makeshift maternal clinics in civilian camps across South Sudan, particularly in the states of Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Unity and Warrap.
– Kenneth Odiwuor