Two and a half years ago, I traveled to Bangladesh to film for my documentary, No Woman, No Cry. A year after the film's completion and world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010, I have finally returned. This was the first country we visited while filming but the last to which we have brought it back. Bangladesh is also the furthest distance from New York, where I happen to live. To give you a sense of just how far away it is, I joined Erin Thornton, the Executive Director of Every Mother Counts, and Heather Armstrong, our first EMC delegation guest, at JFK Thursday evening on June 16th, and it was not until 4am Saturday, June 18 that we arrived in Dhaka. Julie Smolyansky, the CEO of Lifeway Foods, joined us the following morning from Chicago.
But the timing and purpose of this visit is more than just an opportunity to return to share the completed film. We're also incredibly excited to come back to see the considerable progress made in this field for ourselves and to share what is possible with our guests. In the last few months, we have learned that Bangladesh has reduced its maternal mortality rate by 40 percent and is now on track to achieve MDG 5: to improve maternal health and reduce maternal mortality by 75% by 2015. Given that Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world with the highest burden of MMR (maternal mortality rates), this news gives me great hope.
We were greeted at our gate by DFID's Country Director, Chris Austin, when we landed in Dhaka. As early or as late as it was, the airport was bustling. We checked into our hotel at 5am, as the sun was coming up and the birds were starting to chirp themselves awake for the day. We all went to our rooms to settle and do our very best to rest for a few hours before starting our day.
Fortunately for us, we only had an elevator ride to our first destination. We gathered together a group of experts representing several NGOs committed to improving health for vulnerable girls and women as well as insuring their right to access healthcare. We were also joined by Sara Hossain, a Barrister in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, who, since 1992, has focused most of her work in the areas of constitutional, public interest and family law. We heard from representatives of CARE, BRAC, USAID and UNFPA, on their thoughts and observations about how the rates have declined and what role their organizations have played to contribute to this substantial decrease in MMR over the last ten years (from 320 to 194 per 100,000 live births). According to Sara, some of the main drivers of these changes has been a wider understanding of rights, the influence of traditional and alternative media, economic opportunities such as microcredit, and community mobilization- all of which were made possible because of a progressive constitution with human rights built into it in the early 70's.
We took off from there to visit the Kunipara slum with BRAC. BRAC is one of the world's most effective holistic development organizations in the world with a focus on health established here in Bangladesh by Founder Fazle H. Abed. We worked closely with BRAC in 2009 while filming here. In fact, we found our focal characters (Monica, a pregnant mother and Yasmin, a community health worker) who live and work in one of the cities largest, most densely populated slums.
Today, we have been invited to visit another Manoshi program in another slum. It is early in rainy season so no surprise that it began to rain heavily when we arrived at the slums. The program was created to address the fact that nearly 90% of women deliver at home and without trained birth attendants to assist them. They have erected urban birthing centers throughout the slums quarters where women are encouraged to come to give birth with a trained attendant in a hygienic, safe facility. They are also provided prenatal care through community birth attendants who visit them in their homes.
Inside, a group of pregnant women were attending a prenatal education course with a community health worker. All the women gathered for the meeting are in their 3rd trimester. Many of them are pregnant for the first time. A mom who had just delivered in the middle of the night was resting in the room next door.
We then walked deeper into the slums to visit a 7-month pregnant woman in her home as she was being visited by a BRAC community health worker. What was most exciting about the experience was witnessing the community health worker using a mobile phone to track the woman's health. This is a pilot program for BRAC and a concept that will be scaled up in the coming months but has great potential to extend health workers' reach and efficiency.
We ended our visit with a reunion with Yasmin, the community health worker profiled in No Woman, No Cry. I was able to share the film for her on a laptop and catch up with her. She said she enjoyed having the opportunity to see it and said it made her appreciate her job working for BRAC even more.
Sharing the film with the participants has made having made this film all the more meaningful. This was a perfect cap for the first day of my return.
Read Day 2 here.