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Delivering into chaos: How UNFPA is helping women give life in a dignified manner

22 February 2018
Lena Towai with her newly born baby boy at an internally displaced camp in East Pokot County where she has been living since August 2017. Photo by UNFPA KENYA / Douglas Waudo

The morning of August 20th, 2017 began like any other day for Lena Towai aged 35, and a mother of seven. Living in a pastoral community in Tangulbei in East Pokot County, her day involved taking care of the children, while her husband is away in search of pastures and water for their flock. With her husband away, sometimes for weeks, Lena was apprehensive that morning, and for good reason. 

“I was expecting my seventh child in a matter of days and I had hoped he would be around,” she says while forcing a smile.

“Nonetheless, two of my neighbors are birth attendants. In fact, they were instrumental during my previous deliveries, and as such, I was somehow comforted by the fact that I was in safe hands,” she adds.

Delivering in a hospital was never an option for Lena and many other expecting women because the nearest health facility is over 100kms away, making it inaccessible for most. As a result, the community has long been relying on traditional birth attendants and home deliveries.

Traditionally, the majority of people in East Pokot who were once nomadic livestock farmers are now living in manyattas (groups of huts forming a small village unit within a common fence), while herders, mostly men, move in search of pasture and water. It’s this movement in search of pasture and water that have been sources of conflict and increasing incidents of cattle rustling.

Well, that morning, as Lena went about with the household chores in the manyatta, little did she know that her world was just hours away from being turned upside down.

Bandit attack

“My children and I went to bed that day as always by 7:30 pm,” she says thoughtfully. “About three hours into the night, we heard gunshot fire blazing into the manyatta.”

By the time Lena was trying to make sense of what was happening, her grass-thatched hut among others was on fire. “I remember shouting at my children to run into the nearby bushes,” says Lena.

“The only thing I managed to grab before dashing out of the hut was my polythene bag, which had my personal items. I was heavy and tired. I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted. But somehow I managed to get into the bushes, though with much difficulty,” says a disturbed Lena.

“It was so dark in the bushes, occasionally I would bump into logs of trees and hurt myself, but I kept moving, all the while praying that my children were safe. I was alone and terrified,” adds Lena. Then the worst happened two hours after Lena got into the bushes. Without warning, she went into labor.

“I remember crying at the top of my voice for help. I was sure I was going to die unless I got help,” she says.

Moments later, Lena heard faint voices of someone replying to her cry for help. Turns out it was one of her neighbors, who was also a midwife. Unfortunately, she had been shot in the leg, though it wasn’t life-threatening.

Four hours later, Lena gave birth in the bushes in the middle of the night. And despite the gunshot injury, the neighbor was able to help her through the delivery. “I had a dignity kit given to me by UNFPA, which was in the polythene bag I hurriedly grabbed while leaving the burning hut. That I believe is what saved my life,” says Lena.

Dignity kits – Lifesavers in emergencies

During conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies, sexual and reproductive health needs can be overlooked – with staggering consequences. Pregnant women risk life-threatening complications without access to reproductive health services.

To help women and girls maintain their health and dignity, UNFPA distributes reproductive health and 'dignity kits' in disaster and conflict-affected communities.

These kits contain menstrual pads, soap, underwear, as well as other supplies required by circumstances or cultural contexts. For example, headscarves are distributed in some communities, while t-shirts are provided in others. In places where women and girls fear assault, for example, while traveling at night to the toilets, whistles and flashlights are included in the kits.  

The following day, Lena and her newly born baby boy were reunited with her family at a camp for the internally displaced persons set up at the chief’s office in the neighboring district after getting assistance from the government security forces and development partners. According to government records, currently the camp is hosting 10,000 families, majority being women and children.

The internally displaced camp in Tangulbei, East Pokot where Lena and her community members are staying. The camp is supported by the Kenya Red Cross Society, a partner with UNFPA.  Photo by UNFPA KENYA / Douglas Waudo

Dignity, safety, and health for all women and girls

The chances of women like Lena to live or die in a crisis often depends on whether they can get basic sexual and reproductive health services, which too often take a back seat to other urgent needs, like food, water, and shelter. Evidence by UNFPA shows that about 70 percent of all maternal deaths take place in emergencies and fragile situations. Every day, 507 women and adolescent girls die during pregnancy and childbirth in these settings.

One of UNFPA’s top priorities is protecting the lives of mothers and their newborns.

UNFPA works to maintain and increase access to sexual and reproductive health services for vulnerable populations, as well as support mechanisms to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.

Over the past one-year, 21,738 women and girls have been assisted by UNFPA in humanitarian settings in Kenya. Globally, UNFPA provides life-saving sexual and reproductive health services to women and girls in 38 countries or territories where natural disasters or conflicts have occurred. UNFPA also provided reproductive health equipment, medicines and supplies that served 35 million women and adolescent girls in crisis-affected countries last year.

- Douglas Waudo