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‘Hold life precious in your hand’

Maternal health champion receives Order of Canada

Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese is an obstetrician and director of the International Women’s Health Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. She’s worked as an obstetrician in Canada, Yemen, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Pakistan and Uganda. To confront the tragically high (1 in 16) maternal and neo-natal death rates in Uganda, she founded – with Ugandan colleagues – an organization called Save The Mothers. With her family, she lives in Uganda for eight months a year and in Hamilton annually from May to August.

On May 8, 2015, Froese was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada. Hall-Wilson spoke with Dr. Froese about her faith, the freedoms we take for granted and why maternal health hinges on more than new hospitals.

Lisa Hall-Wilson: You were raised in a Christian home. At what point did your faith become your own and not just something your parents did?
Dr. Jean Chamberlain Froese: I think I was probably about seven years of age. One evening at People’s Church, the pastor talked about heaven and what if you die tonight. I wasn’t sure about that. As a young kid, I was really convicted and went home and prayed with my mom. That was the first initial commitment. . . . There were lots of experiences after that that really helped to build my faith.

What aspect of growing up in Toronto prepared you for the work you’re doing now?
My experiences at Ontario Pioneers Camp prepared me for East Africa and the Middle East. Not necessarily having a washroom all the time, being in nature. Even now where we live [part time in Uganda], we have running water but there are times when the power goes and you have to use a pit latrine. . . . My outdoorsy early life was helpful in preparing me for some of the ruggedness of East Africa.

You have lived in places where women are given less respect, have fewer freedoms – where Christianity is the minority. What did living in all those places teach you?
We don’t realize what we have until we’re in a place where they don’t have it. I always say to people that my grandmother couldn’t vote until she was 23. She got a Grade 8 education, was pulled out of school and never went back, because she had to work on the farm. It wasn’t too long ago that [those freedoms] weren’t here either.

That really central pillar of the value of a human being in Canada is a Judaeo-Christian ethic and foundation, which has set us up to have this life here as women. People criticize the Christian church, but what the Bible says about women gives us the kind of freedom we enjoy. Those kinds of international experiences teach us that we shouldn’t take things for granted.

I think about a 12 year old girl in Africa starting her menstrual cycle at school. There’s no decent toilet. She drops out of school because she can’t hygienically look after herself in a place like that. Seems like a basic, almost crude, thing, but she ends up getting married at 15, pregnant at 16 and dies at 17. All those factors have contributed to her not reaching her potential.

You founded Save The Mothers 10 years ago. How has the issue of maternal health changed over that time?
When I started there was apathy to the issue of maternal death and neo-natal death. East Africa is very Christian and they believed this happened because it was God’s will. What’s happened in the last 10 years is there’s become an awareness in the general population that it’s not God’s will and we could be doing something about it. We all need to be doing something to improve maternal health. Things haven’t changed overnight, things didn’t change overnight in Canada either, but there is now an understanding and awareness that mothers shouldn’t die.

The maternal mortality rates are very high in Uganda. How has working in those conditions challenged or changed your faith?
In the West we feel like we’ve got everything under control and can save anybody, but life and death aren’t that far apart. Hold life precious in your hand. As well, seeing the disparity, the inequity, in that old expression “let them eat cake.” The peasants are all starving and have no bread, and to a certain extent we don’t really understand what’s happening in these places. I walk into a labour and delivery room in Hamilton, I blow a whistle and there’s 15 people around me to help. A woman in Africa may not get to a hospital; [and if she does] they may not have the 15-cent medication she needs to survive. . . . We’re a global community and we need to do what we can.

Your work sounds exhausting – mentally, physically and spiritually. Is there one woman or story that helps you keep going?
There’s two things: reflecting on the students in the Save the Mothers program; they’ve gone up in front of the president [to talk about maternal health]. And also the journalists who have done so much to make sure that safe motherhood is on the front page. Who make an investment in people like that so they can sail on.

I think of the early stories in my book Where Have All The Mothers Gone? I was looking after this young woman in a rural area, she was maybe 16, had been abandoned by her family. I’m waiting for someone to help me with anaesthesia. But what is a 16 year old doing here pregnant and alone delivering new life? It’s more than building more hospitals – it’s about how people look at women. Are they protected, are they valued, so it’s safe for them to deliver?

You’ve won many awards. Is there one that’s meant more than the others?
The Order of Canada has trumped them all. Just being there with all these other Canadians who have done fantastic things was a really great thing. . . . I don’t need the Order of Canada; it’s lovely that I have it, but my life is more than that. My prayer is that people will see that, know that I’m a believer, and that I have a heart for women.  


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