blog / Giving life to those who give life

Sun, 10 May, 2015

Giving life to those who give life

According to the 2006 PNG national health survey, maternal death rates in Papua New Guinea were among the highest in the world - and had actually doubled over the preceding 10 years. Here is one way we can help save our mothers.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that a large percentage of maternal deaths could be avoided by eliminating unplanned pregnancies, through comprehensive access to contraceptives. Regardless, the risks involved with all pregnancies remains high, due largely to the scarcity of rural health centres across Papua New Guinea, and barriers preventing expectant mothers accessing them. 

In an online article published this week, Abbie O'Brien of SBS Australia highlighted the work of The Hands of Rescue Foundation, founded by Dr Barry Kirby, who formed an initiative that encourages mothers in PNG villages to give birth in supervised health centres. The initiative has been extraordinarily helpful, with an 80 per cent increase in supervised delivery and a 75 per cent reduction in maternal deaths in the centres supported by the Foundation. 

It is often challenging and expensive for an expectant mother to travel to a health centre from a remote village - greatly reducing the likelihood of mothers making the journey.  Dr Kirby also believes that ingrained shame around poverty and being poor was deterring women from going to health centres to receive the medical care they needed, and deserved. 

In response, his Foundation utilised the idea of ‘Baby Bundles’, gift packages for new mothers with essential items for their new babies - such as a big baby dish, nappies, bed sheets, toilet paper, oil and powder, singlets and baby pants. Dr Kirby says that The Hands of Rescue Foundation has put out 2,500 of these bundles - which cost approximately A$28 and include the $A5 equivalent cost of a health centre delivery. It is a model that may just work in reducing Papua New Guinea’s painful maternal mortality rate.

This simple idea has been remarkably effective in other contexts. Consider this: for 75 years, Finland's expectant mothers have been given a box by the state - containing essential items for mum and baby. The box itself can be used as a bed for the newborn. Finland was a poor country in the 1930s, with a high infant mortaliity rate; baby boxes were introduced to give all Finland’s children an equal start in life.

But the boxes were also a way to compel pregnant women to visit health centres - where they could pick up this gift - and thus receive much needed health care. It would be wonderful for the mothers of Papua New Guinea - and mothers of The Pacific, more broadly - to have access to the same support.


Dr Barry Kirby estimates that today in PNG, around 500-700 in 100,000 women die during childbirth. In Australia, the number is around 4 or 5 in 100,000 women. It is an upsetting and confronting disparity.

Send Hope Not Flowers is a charity organisation in Australia, staffed by volunteers, that supports Dr Kirby’s work around maternal health in Papua New Guinea. Its name comes from the concept of encouraging people to donate to mothers in countries with high maternal mortality rates, rather than buy flowers for mothers in Australia - "because flowers die and mothers should not".

Their partners include, among others, The Obstetrics and Gynaecology Society of Papua New Guinea.

To find out more about Send Hope Not Flowers, visit

You can read more about Dr Barry Kirby’s work in Papua New Guinea here.


WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.


Photo: ‘Send Hope Not Flowers’ banner. A new mother and her baby at the maternity ward at Port Moresby General hospital.

(Credit: Karleen Minney)

Photo 2: Baby bundles.

(Credit 'Send Hope Not Flowers')

Photo 3: Baby bundles delivery!

(Credit 'Send Hope Not Flowers')


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