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By Andrea Andres
2 May 2023

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of Australia’s nearest neighbours, but the experience of pregnancy and birth for women in PNG is often far different than most of us could imagine.  

Our UNICEF Australia Ambassador and mother of two, Edwina Bartholomew, recently spoke to Paula, a UNICEF health officer in PNG to learn about the situation for mothers in the country and discuss how we can make a difference. 

Keep reading below to hear how the conversation went... 

Edwina holding her child.© UNICEF Australia/Supplied

About Edwina Bartholomew

Journalist, Sunrise presenter and mother-of-two, Edwina Bartholomew joined UNICEF Australia as an Ambassador in 2022. Edwina is one of Australia’s most well-known and well-regarded journalists, having worked in television and radio news for over 13 years. Edwina has supported numerous UNICEF Australia campaigns, raised emergency funds for our Ukraine appeal and is passionate about maternal and neonatal health.    

Edwina: Paula, you're on the ground in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with UNICEF. Tell me about what you do there. 

Paula: I’m a health officer at the PNG UNICEF office and am responsible for the maternal, newborn and child health area, including all our primary health care. Our maternal mortality and newborn deaths are very high within the region. We do all we can to support the government so that we can improve some of these statistics that we have. 

Edwina: One of the real challenges in Papua New Guinea is that people are so remote in many parts of the country, they can't really access a skilled health worker to assist with birth. 

Paula: Exactly - and that's a major, major problem! More than 80% of our population live in rural, remote areas. It’s difficult when it comes to pregnant women coming to antenatal clinics, which is the first start for a child to survive and thrive, and for a pregnant woman to be healthy and bear that healthy child. It’s also a challenge for health workers to detect issues, support and provide the care needed during these nine months.  

All of this is difficult because of the inaccessibility in outlying province districts without road access. People still haven’t seen vehicles driving to their villages because there're no roads. 

"Imagine a pregnant woman, in the third trimester or at the full nine months, trying to walk towards the nearest facility, which may be a six-hour or ten-hour walk. "

UNICEF PNG Health Officer

It's easier for women living around health facilities, but for the ones who are far, it's challenging. And that leads to most of our deliveries in the country being unsupervised.  

We only have a 56% supervised birth rate. The other 44%...they're delivering somewhere on the road, along the beach, depending on where they are, at what time they are experiencing this labour pain, either in their homes or along the way, trying to walk to a health facility. Those are the kind of experiences because of the issue of accessibility. 

Edwina: What does birth look like to most of those women who are having to give birth in their homes or villages with the assistance of just family? 

Paula: It’s usually delivering on the ground or wherever she feels safe. Usually, little huts are built behind or prepared when a woman goes into labor so she can stay isolated in that. Only one person can support them in the hut, which can be a mother-in-law, a sister, or parents.  

Without any clean things in the hut means it’s very susceptible for infection, either for the mother or for the baby, because delivery can happen on banana leaves, coconut leaves or even used clothes. Whatever that’s available at that time and in that location where she is preparing to give birth. 

Edwina: The safe delivery kits, which are part of the UNICEF Australia Inspired Gifts campaign for Mother's Day, include things like a scalpel, a plastic sheet, gloves, and simple sanitary items that would help a health worker or even just help a mother be able to facilitate a safe birth. 

Paula: Yes, and these kits are purposefully for what I have described – the issue of accessibility. If deliveries are taking place in these situations, then we need to intervene. We need to provide something clean and safe for newborns that have been supported in their mother's womb for nine months. 

That’s the whole purpose of this safe delivery kit. All of it contributes to a baby coming out on a clear and clean area.  

Edwina Bartholomew and Paula from UNICEF PNG speaking online.
Edwina Bartholomew and Paula from UNICEF speaking about the maternal crisis in PNG.
© UNICEF/Supplied

Edwina: And the kits also contain medicines that can help the baby and mother in those first crucial days of life? 

Paula: That's correct. Mothers will take iron tablets because malaria is common in PNG and destroys the red blood cells. Most women do not have all the nutritious meals they need, and taking iron supplements helps reduce stillbirths and the postpartum bleeding that happens from low blood levels.  

It's important that a woman gets this iron tablet when she's pregnant and also for the baby's [umbilical] cord to be safely cut. Infections can happen because people use bamboo and other things to cut the cord, and we provide the blades and medication to help dry and heal it so there’s no infection for the newborn. 

Edwina: Paula, what does it mean to the UNICEF staff there and the new mothers in PNG, that mothers here in Australia are thinking of them this Mother's Day and joining this campaign? 

Paula: I really appreciate that because every little support, either monetary wise or sharing of experiences, helps to empower women here so that with the kits they feel they can be in control, take care of their newborn and do something to prevent infections. We appreciate this because we know a life will be saved.  

Give the gift of life this Mother’s Day 

Every child deserves to brought into the world safely. Purchase an Inspired Gift this Mother’s Day and help newborns survive and thrive in PNG.  

Here’s how: 

  • Purchase a Mother’s Day Safe Delivery Gift UNICEF Inspired Gift. With essential medical items, bring a smile to your mother's face this year, knowing that her gift is making a difference for other mothers.  
  • A personalised card will be sent to your loved one telling them about the life-saving impact they're having on families. 
  • Real supplies will be delivered to where they're most needed to help mothers and newborns during childbirth. 

You and your mum will be helping save the lives of newborn babies and their mums – truly a gift that will last a lifetime.