05/09/2014 01:57 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Celebrating Those Who Give Life: Mothers' Day Reflections from Malawi

I was getting tired, having been pacing back and forth in the small space between the beds for close to an hour. I remember telling myself that I had to think of other things instead of the contractions that were now coming every five minutes. I decided to go to the nurses' station and tell them that I needed to lie down. I moved slowly to the nurses' station, but before I could reach my destination a woman came into the labor ward looking tired and frail; the chitenge (wrap) she was wearing was soaked in blood. I immediately shifted my eyes to her belly and it showed that she had just delivered. The nurse on duty immediately saw her and said in a raised voice "Kutereko mwaberekera panjira, mwanayo nde ali kuti?" -- meaning, "So you have delivered on your way here, and where is the baby?" The woman started explaining why she didn't deliver at the hospital, saying how far her home was and that her labour started when she was walking to the hospital. Another nurse told me I had to go and pace some more, then I heard the nurse on duty telling the woman, "How could you be this reckless? You are on 5A" -- this was a technical term for drugs given to HIV positive people, and I knew what 5A meant since I was working in HIV/AIDS research -- "and you didn't make prior arrangement to come and deliver at the hospital. Do you know that you have put the baby at risk?"

This statement started a series of thoughts in my head; I was thinking of the difficulties this woman faced to come to the hospital to have a safe delivery, to assure life for her unborn child but also to assure that she doesn't pass the virus to the baby. I compared these situations I was imagining in my head to my own situation where I had the privilege to come to the hospital as soon as labor started. I was assured that I would give birth to a healthy, living baby. I wondered if there was more that could be done to assure health equity, especially to women and considering the role that HIV/AIDS can play. The contractions were now becoming unbearable and the nurse called me to lie down to prepare to give birth. I shelved my thoughts about health equity for the future but the scenario I saw at the labor ward made a huge impact on my life.

Two years later, still working in health research, my daughter growing up with robust health, I still asked myself questions about what contributions I could make to improve health access for the underprivileged in my country, especially women and children. Then I heard about Global Health Corps (GHC), an organization that selects recent college graduates and young professionals from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds and places them in health nonprofits and government offices in the U.S., East Africa and Southern Africa for a year of service. Fellows operate in teams of two -- one international fellow with one in-country fellow -- to create solutions for a variety of health issues like HIV, maternal and child health, nutrition, and health care access. Through GHC programming and leadership development training, these young people complete their fellowship with the skills and support to be change-makers in the global health field. Since its founding in 2009, GHC has deployed 322 fellows of 24 citizenships to work in 7 countries.

This was my answer; finally this was my chance to work with a group of young people that believed that it was possible to improve health access, especially for those people that were unable to get it. With zest, I seized the opportunity to join the GHC movement, and I choose to work with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, an organization that is working on eradication of pediatric HIV and prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV. The picture of a woman I met at the labor ward three years ago still haunts me, and I still wonder what happened to the baby. Is the baby alive? If so, she should be the same age as my daughter. Does she get sick often? Was she infected with HIV? Does she get medical attention when she needs it? These are the questions that I have been asking myself and these are things that fuel me to work hard during my fellowship year, seeing that EGPAF is working on those areas that I wish to see improvements on.

Being a mother and a married woman I, too, understand the struggle in making family planning (FP) decisions, the headache and tension of an FP method not performing to my expectations, the difficulties that I face in accessing health care for my daughter, especially knowing that if I want good health care I need to pay for it. Looking at my life and experiences as a mother, I think of other women and mothers who are in less fortunate circumstances, who are less educated, who lack financial power, and I wonder how they access health services when they need it, be it for themselves or their children. In my mind, I still think of the woman I met three years ago at the labor ward.

GHC is a movement that has staunch belief that there is a need for an overhaul in how healthcare is accessed, especially for the underprivileged in society. GHC is a movement, and it can only do so much. It needs resources to expand to more countries but also more locations in a specific country. Women and girls in most societies usually face a lot of challenges in accessing health care due to challenges of education, financial power, and access to health information among others. Mothers play huge roles in our societies: They bring us into this world, they take care of us from infancy to adulthood among other things. As you read this article, think of the things that your own mother did, does or is doing for you. Make a mental list; I am sure it's endless and that you will agree with me that there is need for something to be done to help our mothers thrive. There is nothing that can help one thrive as much as having good health. As we are soon celebrating Mothers' Day, I will quote my president, the president of Malawi Dr. Joyce Banda: "No woman should die giving life." It's really an irony, but it is happening. On this special occasion, let us celebrate the virtuous woman, the strong woman, the woman in leadership and the courageous woman, and let us also not forget the woman who is frail, sick, powerless and struggling to get quality health care. My friends, let us celebrate the life of a woman for it is worth celebrating. Happy Mother's Day!