Every year, 358,000 mothers and 4 million babies die or are stillborn because of poor maternal care. Put another way, 800 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy. Approximately three per cent of women living in sub-Saharan Africa die because of complications relating to pregnancy. Save the Mothers is a Canadian charity that is attempting to remedy these preventable deaths.

Save the Mothers was started by Dr. Jean Chamberlain-Froese, a Canadian obstetrician/gynaecologist, inspired by her experiences treating mothers in the developing world in countries such as Yemen, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Zambia, and Uganda. She saw that the causes of maternal death went beyond medical barriers and that there were “societal issues that needed to be changed,” as Patricia Paddey, communications director of Save the Mothers, told The Interim. Chamberlain-Froese is also a devout Christian who felt called to be a “medical missionary” since her childhood.

“The largest case of maternal mortality is severe bleeding,” writes Chamberlain-Froese in her book, Where Have All the Mothers Gone?  “One in four deaths result from hemorrhaging that can often be prevented by medication costing less than a coffee.”

Other common causes of death include high blood pressure and infection. In developing countries, though, there are real barriers to accessing the appropriate care, including distance from health facilities, cost, drug and supply shortages, lack of female decision-making power, as well as poor treatment by health professionals. “The community must be mobilized and take a significant stand on the importance of safe motherhood,” she writes.

In accordance with this, Dr. Chamberlain-Froese used her work and connections in Uganda to establish a multi-disciplinary training program that would educate local professionals about maternal health, and inspire them to use what they learned to impact society. In 2002, the initial meeting for Save the Mothers took place to establish its mandate. The organization partnered with Dr. Florence Mirembe, a Ugandan leader in obstetrics, to create the two-year training program. In 2003, an agreement was signed with Uganda Christian University, which would be home to the new program leading to a Masters Degree in Public Health Leadership. In 2005, it was officially launched with a class of 21 students. There are now regularly over 100 applicants for 25 seats per module, according to Save the Mothers’ web site.

Currently, Save the Mothers accepts students from the whole of East Africa, including Tanzania and Kenya, recognizing that safe motherhood is an issue that extends outside of Uganda. The organization has also expanded to the U.S. to “broaden (its) support base,” Paddey told The Interim.

The impact of the program is “difficult” to estimate. Save the Mothers has trained 250 East African professionals, who in turn have been able to reach “thousands if not hundreds of thousands” of individuals. In the beginning, news stories about maternal health in Uganda were hard to come by. Now, they appear every week.

One graduate of the program, Catherine M. Kizza, is a senior editor for The New Vision, a national daily newspaper, and is able to direct the content of the paper. Virginia Plan, the director of a private primary school, teaches children about maternal health, nutrition, and abstinence until marriage. The hope is that the children can then encourage the mothers to get good maternal care. Ivan, another alumnus, was able to use his position as mayor to get an international corporation to provide a maternity hospital in exchange for building a dam.

As of October 2011, 187 students are enrolled in or have graduated from Save the Mothers’ program. Six of them are MPs from Uganda. Four of them are actively advocating and affecting Ugandan policy, promoting more maternal care and “family planning.” The program was also endorsed by the First Lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni.

Regarding the provision of abortion and birth control, Paddey said that the organization believes that mothers, babies, and “pre-born” babies are “worth saving.” Save the Mothers does not carry out abortions, nor does it advocate for the legalization of abortion in Uganda. Their policy is to avoid abortion through “abstinence” and “family planning.”

In the past, Save the Mothers has received grant money from Service Canada and it gets funding from the provincial government for accepting a summer student. It worked under the auspices of Interserve, an international Christian organization, until 2010, when it got charity status. Chamberlain-Froese also advised Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the Muskoka Initiatives and the G8 meetings in Canada. While Save the Mothers has applied for more federal grant money, it is not expected to receive grants similar to the millions giving to Planned Parenthood.

When asked whether Save the Mothers caters to a health issue overlooked by other NGOs, Paddey said that many “have a different focus” and also provide for important needs such as midwife training and “mama kits” to ensure the safe and hygienic delivery of newborns. All in all, though, she emphasized the importance of the “multidisciplinary approach” of Save the Mothers that puts power “in the hands of local leaders.”