My mom is about to give birth. I’m going to have a new baby sister. Which is all very exciting but it’s also a little scary. The trouble is, where we live, our nearest health clinic does not have clean water and often there’s no soap. The toilets are outside and they’re terrible.
You’ve traveled all around the world so you must know this problem is really common all across the developing world. That is where I was born and live, and that is where my little sister is about to be born, too. When my mom goes into labor, I know it’s going to hurt and I am going to do my best to help her carry the water she’ll need to the health clinic; but it’s really heavy and I’m little and can only carry so much.
So, what I wish for my mom, and my new baby sister this Christmas, is to be born in a place that has clean water and is safe. I want my mom to be able to prevent disease by bathing before feeding my sister. I want the midwife who will help my mom through it all to be able to wash her hands, and I want to be able to wash my hands, too, before holding my new sister for the first time. I’m scared that she might get sick like my little cousin. She was a newborn baby when she got sick. She went to heaven even before she was named.
Imagine if this was the letter your child had to write to Santa this season.
Yes, my Dear Santa letter may be imaginary, but the conditions described are not. Day One is when more than 40% of maternal and newborn deaths occur in large part because hospitals and health clinics lack the foundation for safe delivery: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, known as WASH. Every year, 17 million women in developing countries give birth in a facility without WASH, so infections are easily transmitted by unwashed hands, contaminated beds, unsafe water and umbilical cords cut by unsanitary instruments. More than one million deaths every year are associated with unclean births due to these conditions. This should not be.
The lack of WASH also disproportionately harms women and girls. They make up the majority of cleaners, nurses and midwives, as well as those utilizing healthcare services. When the ‘What Women Want’ survey, which focused on women’s health services, was released this past summer, 1.2 million women and girls in 114 countries said their top priority was getting WASH into healthcare facilities, second only to their desire for dignified healthcare. (White Ribbon Alliance)
Christians have a big role to play. Upwards of 50% of healthcare facilities in some developing regions are run by faith-based organizations. Many of these faith-based organizations are linked to denominations here in the U.S. They are dedicated and professionals working under difficult circumstances, and until recently, there was no understanding of just how widespread the lack of WASH inside healthcare facilities is. The very first global study was released in 2019, and it found hundreds of thousands of facilities without clean water, soap and toilets.
Clearly, water, toilets and soap don’t hinge on scientific or technological discoveries. They hinge on the effective coordination of health, water and financial resources and commitment to long-term sustainability. UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Secretary General himself call for large-scale improvements by 2030. Our faith-based organizations, hard at work on the frontlines of healthcare, are in a prime position to advocate globally and help local leadership transform busted pumps and pipes, decaying infrastructure and haphazard “fixes” into sustainable solutions. It’s time for our faith-based organizations to commit to getting clean water, sanitation and hygiene into every healthcare facility they run.
So this Christmas, as we celebrate a miraculous birth in an ancient manger, we are reminded that every birth is a miracle. And every one of those little miracles, those little brothers and sisters yet to be, deserve a safe and clean welcome into the world, starting on Day One. Let’s encourage our faith-based organizations to lead the way to safer, more dignified and more compassionate care, by making sure every facility they run has the foundation of healthcare: adequate clean water, sanitation and hygiene.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the president and founder of Freedom Road, LLC and the author of several books, including The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong can be Made Right. She is on the advisory board of Faiths for Safe Water, the only advocacy project that focuses the multi- faith voice on the global water crisis, and an Auburn Senior Fellow.