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Wednesday, 20 March 2013 00:59

Marist Sister and Caritas join forces to prevent Bangladeshi women dying in childbirth

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In Sydney for the next few months as part of the leadership team for the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (SMSM), Sr Julienne insists she has loved the country and the people in each of the various nations where she has been stationed. However she says, Bangladesh has the greatest call on her heart because the needs of women and children there are so great.

Prior to being based in Bangladesh, Sr Julienne spent periods of up to 10 years as a missionary sister  in the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the remote Chatham Islands where the Bounty's famous mutineer, Fletcher Christian landed and where his descendants still live, Papua New Guinea.

"But none of these countries prepared me for the overwhelming number of people in Bangladesh or for the abject poverty I saw there," she says. "Although I worked in the Pacific where there were many people living hand to mouth, they always had food and a roof over their heads. But in Bangladesh millions are homeless with many malnourished and unable to find enough food for themselves or their children."

Although there are extremely rich Bangladeshis and a rising middle class, the majority of the nation's 150 million are extremely poor and living below the poverty line. This is further exacerbated by the influx of those who have lost their land to floods, natural disasters or debtors and arrive in Bangladesh's crowded capital of Dhaka desperately seeking work.

"Landowners of small holdings in rural Bangladesh frequently borrow money for seeds or stock, but when the region suffers drought, flood or a poor season, they are wiped out and, unable to repay their debt, lose their land as well," she explains.

Although based in Dhaka, Sr Julienne travelled extensively across rural areas, working closely with Caritas Bangladesh, training midwives and local women as health practitioners, or as they are commonly known: "lady village doctors."

As coordinator of Caritas Bangladesh's Safe Motherhood Project (SMP) Sr Julienne not only trained hundreds of women as midwives and "lady village doctors" but in rural Bangladesh as well as towns and some cities, improved antenatal as well as post natal care for women together with health education programs. SMP also taught women about the importance of hygiene and fresh clean water, good nutrition and established vaccination programs for mothers as well as their babies.

Thanks to the dedication and efforts of people like Sr Julienne along with international aid and development organisations such as Caritas, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, maternal mortality in Bangladesh has been reduced by more than 40% in the past 14 years.

"This is a very encouraging and dramatic reduction in deaths during or after childbirth but there is still a long way to go," Sr Julienne warns pointing out that 200 women out of 100,000 live births continue to die each year, compared with Australia's far lower statistic of 8 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

"Just over 10 percent of maternal deaths are due to domestic or dowry violence," she says and adds that another high risk category are extremely young girls being married off at 10 and 12 and becoming pregnant to their much older husbands.

"Children this young have five times the risk of dying during childbirth than a woman of 20 or older," she says and explains that to uneducated Bangladeshi parents, marrying daughters at such an early age is a bid to prevent the family being disgraced and dishonoured.

"If a daughter's purity or honour is lost this impacts the entire family who are shamed and disgraced. But for this to happen, it does not necessarily mean she has engaged in a relationship of a sexual nature. Shame can come to the family simply because their daughter has done something as simply talk to an unknown boy or laughed at a boy's joke."

Girls are regarded by many of the poor and uneducated as little more than a burden and a drain on the family resources. However Sr Julienne says this is slowly changing through the education of women as well as women joining the workforce.

Until relatively recently, Bangladeshi women did not have jobs and had no income or recourse to money of their own.

Sr Julienne says although many of us in developed countries such as Australia are appalled that millions of Bangladeshi girls work in factories for long hours and low wages, the fact they are earning money is leading to their emancipation and also giving them a greater say not only within their male-dominated families but in their own lives and futures.

"Women in many of these factories are also starting to band together to demand rights, better pay, better conditions and health care," she says predicting this is just the beginning.

Although Sr Julienne is not sure where her next mission will take her, she says it will mean a return to Bangladesh to continue her work there.

"I love Bangladesh for its people, their vitality and how they have shown me again and again that despite being poor you can live a rich, full life. Bangladesh brings you back to basics and makes you realise how little anyone needs to be happy. You don't need a lot of material possessions."

Sr Julienne also admires the close sisterhood of women in Bangladesh who feel one another's suffering as if it was their own, and who draw compassion and strength from each other. She also loves their spirituality and trust and faith in God.

"Less than 0.25% of Bangladesh is Christian with 0.2% Catholic. When I first went there, I was told I would not be allowed to proselytise. I thought this meant there would be no talk about religion or God. But I found the women I worked with, who were mainly Muslim or Hindi, were all deeply spiritual with God involved in everything they did. They didn't differentiate between religions. God was God and they would come to me and ask me to bless their children. For them it doesn't matter whether it is Allah, Bhaga or God. To them He is one and the same. They even love Jesus although they have a different concept of Christ from ours," Sr Julienne says and with a smile adds: "God is everywhere. He is the fabric and dialogue of life."

Caritas Australia continues to support the Caritas Bangladesh Safe Motherhood Project with part of the funds raised during Project Compassion this year once again going to support the important work being done by the Project and by dedicated women such as Sr Julienne and the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary (SMSM).

(Photo of Sr Julienne Hayes, used with permission of Margherita Gregory, kiss photography)

Donate to Caritas Australia's annual Lenten fundraiser, Project Compassion. 

This article is reprinted with compliments of Catholic Communications, Archdiocese of Sydney