I went through the incredible temples of Angkor and the countryside. Cambodia is a country where cultures and traditions still very alive. At the same time it has a sad story of profound suffering, with the Khmer Rouge regime, where about two million people were killed.
I volunteered in the organization Women’s Health Cambodia. It is a non-profit NGO, based in the province of Takeo. The organization began to bring kindness to women. The focus is children and women’s health, but also includes the whole community.
Childbirth in Cambodia is not just the moment of birth, but the whole process of pregnancy, birth and postpartum recovery. Many women are cared by traditional birth atenders “chmâp boran”. The delivery is undergoing a process of hospitalization, but the conditions still very poor. Maternal mortality is estimated to be 250 per 100,000 live births.
In villages that I did volunteer work, the births took place at the health center. Women would walk around quietly during labor, the family was around. I would massage the mother’s back, but that close contact is not common for them. During birth no family member were allowed. The woman has the baby lying on her back and the cord is cut immediately after delivery. The midwife was not very gentle with the mothers, who are afraid to express themselves.
I learned a lot with postpartum visits at the families’ houses. All the neighbors gathered, curious to know what was happening. Traditional houses are made of palm leaves covering around the house and on the roof, wood is the support of the house. We would check mother and baby, but also see the entire family context. Where do they live? Do they have enough food? Do they have support?
Cambodians believe that the female body becomes cold after childbirth. They have different ways to warm the body, even if the weather is very hot. A woman shouldn’t bathe for a few days to a week after childbirth; should keep the body covered from head to toes; eat foods that warm the body, about 90% of families make “ang pleong” or rosting, which is a fire under the bamboo beds where women and babies lie, which sometimes extends for 10 days, to prevent back pain in the future and improve the skin. The postpartum rituals serve to prevent what they call “Tos” short and long term postpartum problems.
They do not question about breastfeeding. I also didn’t see any baby with pacifier or diaper! He is covered by a piece of cloth, gloves and a mosquito net. They use the “Tiger Balm” cream in the belly of babies that is covered with a plastic that warms the tummy and also irritates it. In every house we found a knife located behind the baby’s head, which serves to protect him from evil spirits. Also is not nice to praise children because they believe it attracts evil spirits.
We live such a different life. Many things for us would apparently be so necessary, but for them would not make much difference. It is a challenge to work in a way that you help without interfering too much.
Kindness – that’s what they really need and is the heart of the organization. A sincere smile, holding the hand of women during childbirth, massage her back. So the wound can be healed little by little and people can trust and love each other.
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