The photo in the newspaper, of a baby girl born a few days ago at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia makes me marvel at how beautiful she is; but the next moment I remember the reality she has been born into—what the future holds for her, what her mother had to go through while fleeing her own country and whether she too, will have to face hunger, disease and emotional trauma. The caption says this baby girl was born in the open, 20 days after her mother came to Bangladesh.
And she is not alone. The government estimates that around 200 babies were born in the last one month in the makeshift refugee camps of Cox's Bazar and Teknaf. And The Guardian reported on September 17 that more than 400 babies have been born in the no man's land between the borders of Bangladesh and Myanmar in just 15 days.
As of now, an estimated 480,000 Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State and crossed the border into Bangladesh; among them 80 percent are women and children. UNFPA says at least 13 percent of the Rohingya women are either pregnant or lactating mothers. Many of these more than 16,000 expectant mothers (in the vulnerable category) have faced violence in their own country, seen their husbands and children die in front of their eyes, had to hide in the hills for days and take a grueling journey to reach Bangladesh.
While the government, UN agencies and NGOs have been struggling to provide the Rohingya refugees with food, drinking water, toilet facilities and medicine, providing the expectant mothers with proper medical care still remains a big challenge. Many of the expectant and lactating mothers, moreover, still remain undocumented; the number is most likely to reach well above 50,000. A Bangla daily has recently reported that on average eight children are being born in the camps each day. Thus, the needs of the expectant and new mothers should receive special and immediate attention.
As The Daily Star has reported, most of the babies in the refugee camps have been born in unhygienic conditions, mostly without any assistance of midwives. Therefore, the first thing that needs to be ensured is that these expectant mothers can live and give birth in a hygienic environment.
“Not only pregnant women, all women and girls need 'hygiene kits' in which there will be sanitary towel, torch, nail clipper, antiseptic cream, etc.”, says Gawher Nayeem Wahra, Adjunct Faculty, IDMVS, Dhaka University and also the Founder Convener of Disaster Forum. "Everybody is thinking about food. But these are the practical needs of all women.” He adds that there should also be "hygiene corners" which are particularly very important for expectant mothers where they can get clean or breastfeed their babies.
We have known from reports that the UNFPA has deployed a number of trained midwives to attend the women and girls in the refugee camps, and other national and international NGOs have also been working in their own capacity to provide the pregnant women with antenatal care. But this is just not nearly enough considering the number of women who are expectant. Only by increasing the number of qualified doctors, nurses, midwives and other medical practitioners, can their medical needs be properly addressed.
According to Dr Shahjahan Ali, Team Leader, Health Programme, Brac, there are some basic problems which need to be solved right away. The need for delivery centres is one of them. Without a proper delivery centre, it is quite difficult to assist a pregnant woman during childbirth. At present women are giving birth inside their tents which is made of polythene and bamboo. There is no arrangement for the women to even lie down. According to him, pregnant women are catching cold as they are sleeping on polythene sheets and they might also develop pneumonia which can be life-threatening.
“There is no electricity in the camps. So if we have to deliver a baby at night, the situation gets really difficult,” says Dr Shahjahan.
While basic healthcare needs are crucial to ensure that these mothers and their babies survive, there are other issues that need to be addressed. These women and children have suffered unbelievable mental and physical trauma and need psychological counselling. According to Gawher Nayeem Wahra, the government has trained around two to three thousand people in psychosocial counselling. They can be deployed in the camps to give counselling to the expectant mothers and children.
For the newborns in the Rohingya camps, there is danger everywhere, starting with diseases that are spreading throughout the camps. Fever, cold, pneumonia and diarrhoea are widespread. Experts also fear that there might be a public health emergency under such circumstances. We know that the government has been carrying out immunisation programmes in the camps and has already vaccinated a large number of children against the diseases like measles, rubella and polio. It should continue with this programme and make sure that the newborn babies are protected against such diseases.
On September 22, 2017, the BBC published a video of a newborn boy named Anwar Sadiq at Kutupalong refugee camp of Cox's Bazar. He was in his mother's womb as she fled Myanmar to find a safe zone in Bangladesh. The 15-year-old mother talked about her suffering to the BBC. She said that she never thought her child would have to live in a refugee camp.
But then there is Khadija, a young woman, who is grateful that she and her baby have been given a chance to live and start over. She has named her newborn baby girl after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Khadija's mother told India Today, “We have come to Bangladesh in a lot of pain. My daughter was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter here. We have named her (after) Sheikh Hasina. She has given us hope of a new life and we now expect some peace in our lives.”
The writer is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.