By Caryn Wright
Rachel arrives with a tiny pink bundle in her arms and a dull weariness in her eyes. At the age of 16, she has already been forced to marry a town elder and given birth to her third child. Tragically, this is far too common. “In Kenya, three out of ten girls report having experienced sexual violence before age 18” (Jena Lee Nardella, The Mother & Child Project). For Rachel, her youth has been stolen — she is no longer allowed to attend school, has been shunned by society, and now must find a way to care for her babies.
Fortunately, Rachel and girls like her are able to find refuge and redemption on the steps of a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Nanyuki, Kenya, empowering girls to change their own future. This home provides a place for teen moms to live with their babies, complete a high school level education, and receive job training in order to improve their future. Yet, even this opportunity is unavailable to 225 million women in developing countries who wish to delay or avoid pregnancy but lack resources to do so.
Four years ago, as a 20-year-old female not yet finished with my Bachelor’s degree, I was shocked to realize my privilege. The realization came upon meeting Rachel and girls like her who did not have the choice to delay parenthood merely because of the circumstances they were born into. I had the opportunity to pursue a college degree without any worries of how an early marriage dictated by my culture might affect my future. The freedom I have to choose and pursue an education before starting a family is a luxury that 225 million women do not have. These resources are crucial for the 300 thousand women who will die during pregnancy or from complications giving birth annually due to a lack of access to care.
The Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015 was a bold, bipartisan policy initiative developed and supported by more than 20 diverse NGOs. Although it failed to pass during the last session of Congress, the reintroduction of this transformative legislation is crucial to dramatically accelerate the reduction of preventable maternal, newborn, and child deaths worldwide — helping achieve the U.S. commitment to end these deaths by 2035.
Here at World Vision we know how to end preventable maternal, newborn, and child deaths. One inexpensive, yet effective strategy is the healthy time and spacing of pregnancies (HTSP), which is sensitive to both cultural and religious values, yielding powerful results. HTSP “provides a child the opportunity to obtain proper nutrition while allowing the mother to replenish nutrients lost in pregnancy and breastfeeding” (Kent R. Hill, The Mother & Child Project).
World Vision has captured the stories of countless families whose lives have been transformed by HTSP. John and Grace are a couple residing in western Kenya who set out to have a big family since in their culture children are considered a sign of wealth. Tragically, their plans changed when two of their five children died from malnutrition and illness. Because Grace’s pregnancies were spaced so close together, her children were unable to receive the care and nutrition they needed. Having to work so hard to provide for her family, Grace couldn’t nurse her two babies properly. However, their lives were transformed upon meeting Jael — a World Vision Community Health Volunteer. John and Grace learned how to space births three years apart so mother and baby could thrive. Now, Grace has the energy to work on the farm without ill effects and is able to provide for the needs of her children.
By empowering women to choose their future and protect the needs of their families, a critical link in the cycle of poverty is broken. If women wait until the age of 18 to have their first child and space pregnancies out by at least three years, the rate of under 5 child deaths could be reduced by 25 percent. By encouraging HTSP, women are able to sufficiently care for the children they already have before becoming pregnant again. As a result, this prevents unnecessary deaths of children, allows women to pursue an education, which lowers poverty rates, and empowers women to be an influential voice in their communities.
Families like John and Grace who have lost two children to malnutrition and girls like Rachel who are looking for resources to change their future need your help. As the REACH Act is being reintroduced in the 115th session of Congress, ask your members of Congress to show their support. In doing so, you will become a part of the solution that will save the lives of 15 million children and 600 thousand women by 2020. We can end preventable maternal and child deaths by 2035.
Caryn Wright is currently an intern for the Advocacy Integration and Campaigns team at World Vision. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English from Grand Canyon University and desires to use her passion for writing to tackle issues of poverty and injustice.
Photo: Grace Atieno, 32, and her daughter Hawi Ester receive a visit from World Vision Community Health Volunteer Jael Atieno. © 2016 World Vision/ photo by Laura Reinhardt