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Forging paths for new life

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Tearfund’s partner World Renew Laos is helping mothers like Cher Sa overcome the obstacles that challenge their babies’ health and survival.

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Cher Sa and her baby, Laos.

Giving birth is not a comfortable experience for most women. Even the most uncomplicated labours have a degree of physical and mental intensity. There are moments along the way that push you (literally) to your limits. As I reflect on the births of my two children, there was a singular moment that was the most desperately uncomfortable: the 15 minutes in the car between home and the hospital. The urgency, the inability to move around, the stop and start and bumps along the way – everything was intensified in the confined space of the front passenger seat. While it was a short, straightforward journey, and I was met with skilled midwives and excellent (and free!) facilities at the other end, for me, those 15 minutes were excruciating. I look back on them with a mixture of emphatic never again-ness and glorious triumph.

And then I heard about Cher Sa.

Cher Sa and her family live in a remote village in the mountainous region of Phongsaly, northern Laos. Coming and going from her village is not easy at the best of times, but in the middle of the rainy season, journeys can become treacherous. The roads that wind around the hillsides become slippery and unstable. Landslides cause widespread damage and blockages. Travelling via means other than foot, or the occasional motorbike, is not at all common – and yet, there are times when you just have to be somewhere. Like the delivery room of the health centre in the neighbouring village.

When I heard Cher Sa’s story, she had given birth a month earlier to a healthy son, Chue Kia. Rather than giving birth at home, which is the experience of many mothers in the community, Cher Sa delivered her son at a health centre. Despite being a mere 10km away, the literally laborious journey from Cher Sa’s home to the health centre took three hours, navigating bumpy and muddy roads – on the back of a borrowed motorbike! Suddenly, my 15 minutes along a sealed highway didn’t seem so bad.

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Cher Sa travelled three hours on the back of a borrowed motorbike to reach the health centre 10km away in time for her baby's birth.
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Cher Sa and her family live in a remote village in the mountainous region of Phongsaly, northern Laos.

The determination to make such a journey, persevering through obstacles along the way, demonstrates just how dedicated mums like Cher Sa are to giving their babies a strong start in life.

You see, a birth announcement is often good news, but it can also carry fear and risk, especially in remote areas like Phongsaly, where health care and birthing facilities are limited. Even once the hurdle of pregnancy and birth is passed, access to good nutrition and a safe and healthy environment in the early years of development make a vital difference. In a region that faces the highest infant and child mortality rates in the country, where every second child in the province is not meeting growth milestones, a thriving child really is good news.

In Phongsaly, the infant mortality rate is 60 per 1000 – the highest rate per province in the country.

In Phongsaly, 54% of children under five are stunted, meaning their growth and development has been hindered.

World Renew has helped train and mobilise Village Health Volunteers or Traditional Birth Attendants in 13 villages, meaning more women are supported before, during and after birth. The number of children born with a skilled attendant present has increased from 37% to 45%.

Families in Phongsaly live in a daily reality of limited access – whether to clean water, education, livelihoods or health services – but as they encounter the skills, resources and support to forge new paths, it’s creating life-giving opportunities. Tearfund’s local partner, World Renew Laos, who has worked with communities in Phongsaly for the past 14 years, has been instrumental in helping to clear the way for such opportunities. Community health volunteers, trained by World Renew, have supported Cher Sa and other mums with antenatal care, education on mother and child nutrition, and access to health facilities. With confidence and care, empowered women go on to actively encourage other expectant mothers with the knowledge and resources that have made a life-giving difference to their families.

Helping to open up these pathways to new life requires courage, faithfulness and creativity from World Renew, working together with community members and local authorities. Mina, a photographer and consultant and former staff member of World Renew Laos, reflected on this when she recently travelled to Phongsaly, where she met Cher Sa and other community members to hear their stories:

“I felt grateful to revisit World Renew after a long time, and learn about the positive impact in the villages. While our journey into Kachi village was only 60 km, it took us six hours to arrive. We thought it would be easy to get through the road as it was sunny. Unfortunately, the road was wet from fog, and it was raining on the way. Some team members slid down and fell from the motorcycles because the road was too slippery and muddy. The motorbikes were difficult to control on the narrow roads. Luckily, a staff member from the health centre travelled with us. He was skilful and kind, helping to ride each of our motorcycles, including his, up the hills where there was a rough and slippery road.

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Mina (in the purple jacket) and local health centre staff tackling the challenging roads into the remote villages of Phongsaly.

“From this experience, I reflected on the period I worked with World Renew. I have seen many young development practitioners of all genders who have a genuine heart to empower community members, although we do not understand each other fully.

"Even if the road to remote villages is slippery and damaged from landslides each year, young volunteers, government staff and World Renew development practitioners keep supporting the priorities of the community and implement development activities. The result of this is that community members can access basic education, health, agriculture and community capacity building.

“I absolutely admire and am inspired by the sacrificing of development practitioners in encouraging and empowering the community members to see hope in their life.”

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Mina chatting with community members who have developed new livelihood opportunities with the support of World Renew Laos.

As I think about a way being made through obstacles and upheaval, pressing on to bring good news, I think of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD… Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain…” (Isaiah 40:3-5). Isaiah spoke of the Saviour to come, the One whose birth would be announced as “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). The good news of Jesus’ arrival didn’t end with his birth: it continues today, as Christ’s power, hope and peace meet the world’s brokenness. And as Tearfund's Christian partners – in Phongsaly and beyond – support communities to tackle the root causes of poverty, empowering them to overcome the barriers to fullness of life and futures of hope, they are themselves bringers of Jesus’ good news.

By Melody Murton, Tearfund Content Lead. Images by Phakhinda (Mina) Khanthavilay.