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'House of Mothers' Helps Pregnant Women in Guinea-Bissau Beat Statistics

Guinea-Bissau is among the poorest countries in the world. The small, west African nation has one of the world's highest infant mortality rates and is considered one of the worst places in the world to be a mother.

But these bleak figures could start to change, thanks to places like the House of Mothers - a haven for pregnant women who risk life-threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

Kadiatou Barry, 20, is glowing with her first pregnancy. She looks plump and healthy, but she suffers from high blood pressure and anemia, two danger signs for pregnant women.

In Guinea-Bissau, many expectant mothers in the country's remote interior do not react to the danger signs until it is too late. But Kadiatou, who was referred to the House of Mothers as a high-risk case, has benefitted from the early care and support.

"The House of Mothers is a good place and it is important because there is so much support here for women. Mothers arrive here in really difficult situations. But then they stay for a while and get food and treatment," she said.

One in 13 women in Guinea-Bissau die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Only a third of babies are born in hospital. And one of every five babies will die within a few weeks of delivery.

Mortality rates are highest here in Gabu, a remote region 200 km northeast of the capital. At-risk pregnant women are getting the treatment needed to survive these grim statistics.

"The House of Mothers can care for 24 women at one time. These are women with severe complications who come from different parts of the region. They all show signs of risk, like anemia, edema, hypertension, back-to-back pregnancies and child marriage," said Serifo Embalo, coordinator of Maternity Without Risks, a project run by Catholic Relief Services in partnership with the aid organization, Caritas, and Guinea-Bissau's Ministry of Health.

Guy de Araújo, the representative here for the UN's Population Fund says the key is getting women with such dangerous complications to equipped hospitals early enough to save both the mother and her baby.

"Normally, no woman should die as she gives birth to new life. But women leave it too late after the first sign of complications to get treatment. According to local customs, births happen at home and the woman often needs the consent of her husband and family before she can go to a hospital. So this causes delays," he said.

Araújo says pregnant women often work in the fields right up until they feel labor pains. Poor transport and ill-equipped regional clinics also pose problems.

In the maternity ward of Gabu's only hospital, a young woman waits for a caesarian-section. She spent three months at the House of Mothers before moving to the hospital to give birth.

Dr. Minkibam, the hospital's director, says there is a big difference between the women who come from the House of Mothers and those who come from elsewhere.

He says women normally have no pre-natal care during the nine months of their pregnancy and so they often arrive too late and with too many complications. They are the ones, he says, who lose their babies.

Three of the four women in the maternity ward have had emergency caesarians. But none of their babies survived.

Across the hospital compound at the House of Mothers, Kadiatou says some things have changed since her mother's time. "My mother did not have the same chance as me. She never went to hospital. My mother stayed at home during her pregnancies and she gave birth to me at home," she said.

The House of Mothers not only provides essential medical supervision and nutrition to at-risk mothers. It is also a place where women get the rare chance to rest and relax, and escape from the burdens of rural life. "I am not scared now to give birth. Although I am a little bit nervous because it is my first time!"