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Australia and Papua New Guinea: near neighbours but worlds apart

Papua New Guinea
PNG mother and children

A tobacco seller in Papua New Guinea with her children. Taro Taylor under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s hard to bear the thought that less than 2,000 kilometres from where I sit today in Darwin, northern Australia, and just a stone’s throw over the Torres Strait, women and infants are at such disadvantage compared to the Australian families I meet through my midwifery training.  

Our closest neighbour, a tropical oasis in the middle of the South Pacific, is Papua New Guinea. However, this jewel of Melanesia is also a place where 40 per cent of the population lives in absolute poverty and for women, complications in labour mean a death sentence.

Over $1 billion of funding from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) is poured in to Papua New Guinea every year, yet the disparity between them and us is almost insurmountable.

While the rates of infant mortality are improving in Papua New Guinea, we simply cannot accept the current statistics. For every 100 women who give birth, two will die due to complications and nearly five children in every hundred won’t make it to their first birthday.

While Australians enjoy the right to and privilege of state-of-the-art healthcare, most women in Papua New Guinea do not. The two countries sit 151 ranks apart on the Human Development Index – neighbours by distance, worlds apart in advantage.

The World Bank’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were to be the key to Papua New Guinea’s success. They were meant to deliver the Rolls Royce of interventions, and many countries that agreed to its framework have been steamrolling ahead.

Goal 5 of the MDGs aimed to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters by 2015, but the rate of women dying in childbirth in Papua New Guinea has actually been rising. This is horrifying, but with less than one healthcare worker per 1,000 people, what more could you hope for?

With stories of midwives delivering babies by candlelight in the remote highlands due to lack of telecommunications, electricity and infrastructure, one could be forgiven for wondering whether we are living in 2013. Papua New Guinea needs real solutions.

Many communities can only be reached by foot, making aid to these parts expensive. This means health can often be overshadowed by bigger aid projects that will give donors and investors more bang for their buck.

This is why we need to better equip the traditional birth attendants who are present at thousands of births every year. We need to roll out accelerated midwifery programmes so that women and infants are not only being cared for by appropriate healthcare workers, but are also afforded healthcare that is culturally appropriate to them.  

An accelerated midwifery training initiative funded through AusAID would significantly reduce Papua New Guinea’s infant and maternal mortality rate. It would create jobs and would educate women as well as giving them the antenatal, labour and postnatal care they desperately need, want and deserve. These are not expensive initiatives, and the benefits would be easily measured.

The World Health Organization says the health of a country directly correlates with the health and power of its women. Similarly, the health of an infant begins at conception.

Let’s put an end to the terrifying statistics; let’s lead the way for Papua New Guinea’s next generation to have a safe and happy start to life. Let’s pour those funds in to practical solutions that work.

We share a common history and for many Australians, a common culture. We must confront the inequality that divides us. Place them in the palm of our hand: a country’s future depends on it.

Clarice Kimlin is a midwifery student at Charles Darwin University and a Global Voices delegate to the World Bank and IMF Annual Meetings which took place in Washington DC from 6-14 October.

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