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Father's Day Reflections On Child Birth In New York And South Sudan

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This is my first Father's Day as a father. My daughter, Sitara Patricia, was born a few weeks ago at a hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side. I work with UNICEF at its New York headquarters, but have spent most of my UN career in the field -- in civil conflicts including Liberia, Angola, Central African Republic -- as well as being deployed on UNICEF emergency missions such as the Nepal Earthquakes, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Haiti Earthquake and South Sudan's civil conflict.

As with most births, nothing went terribly wrong, but then again, nothing went according to plan. A natural delivery became a long, drawn-out labour that required 48 hours of close medical attention by doctors and nurses, my wife hooked up to the latest technology, which monitored every detailed aspect of her health and that of the baby.

At a certain point, the latest drugs were injected to speed up cervix dilation, and when the dilation happened much too quickly, both an epidural and more drugs to slow the dilation were injected. All under the careful eyes of medical staff and computer monitors. The next day, after hours of trying to deliver naturally, the doctors recommended a caesarian section due to the position of the baby's head.

Within minutes, my wife was wheeled into a pristine operating room, surrounded by a medical team, anaesthetized and the c-section began. In no time at all, our daughter was delivered into my wife's arms, crying to show that she was happy and healthy. And the breastfeeding began ...

Contrast this with the experience of a woman I met while on emergency mission with UNICEF to South Sudan, just two years ago in June 2014:

The baby boy is only four hours old when we meet -- born on a thin, foam single mattress that lies on a mud-dirt floor, inside a small, makeshift plastic sheet shelter in the early morning darkness of Mingkaman, the massive site for internally displaced persons in South Sudan.

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Kuei and the mid-wife from the UNICEF-supported health clinic in Mingkaman IDP site holding her four-hour old son. Photo: UNICEF/Kent Page

The plastic shelter is too low to stand-up in, and apart from the mattress, there is little else inside. The mud floor is damp and it is clear that rain floods the shelter during the heavy thunderstorms prevalent at this time of year. It is hot and humid in this cramped space, the air thick and heavy.

Sitting on the mattress, holding her newborn wrapped in a thin cloth on her lap, the mother of the newest displaced baby born in South Sudan that day is tired, happy and proud. Kuei is nineteen years old and this is the first baby for her and her husband, 23-year-old Kang. Kuei is already breastfeeding her son, which is critical because a breastfed baby has at least a six times greater chance of survival than a non-breastfed baby.

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Kuei breastfeeding her four-hour old son. Photo: UNICEF/Kent Page

Kuei was about four months pregnant when she and her husband had to run for their lives in December 2013 from the violence and fighting around their hometown of Bor in South Sudan's Jonglei State. They fled their village with only a few clothes as possessions, hiding and sleeping out in the open by the Nile River for weeks before finally crossing the river to the relative safety of the Mingkaman in neighboring Lakes State.

South Sudan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world -- even before the eruption of the current conflict and the displacement of more than 1.3 million people. But upon arriving in Mingkaman, Kuei went to the UNICEF-supported, Health Link maternal and primary health care clinic, established as an emergency measure at the internally displaced persons site.

"I went to the antenatal clinic yesterday," says Kuei. "I was seen by the midwife who told me that it was my time to give birth soon but the waters had not broken." At the clinic, the mid-wife gave Kuei a clean delivery kit which turned out to have likely been a life-saver. The kit includes items to help ensure sanitary and safe conditions for a woman in labour and for those assisting with the birth. It contains a plastic sheet, soap, a two-sided clean razor blade for cutting the umbilical cord, cord ties, and pictorial instructions on how to deliver a child.

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Kuei and her 4-hour old baby son (and a mid-wife (on left) from the UNICEF-supported health clinic in Mingkaman IDP site. Photo: UNICEF/Kent Page

"Then I came back to my shelter and the labour started at night," continues Kuei. Her mother-in-law stayed with Kuei while Kang went searching for help. But everything happened so fast that by the time he got back, Kuei's mother-in-law had already helped Kuei give birth in the 4 a.m. darkness on the foam mattress on the dirt floor of her temporary plastic sheeting shelter. Everything in the clean delivery kit came in handy for Kuei and her mother-in-law. In fact, the clean delivery kit was all they had; no hospital, no medical staff, no monitors, no medicine. The delivery kit is simple, but effective, and it helped ensure the safe delivery of Kuei and Kang's baby in the darkness, against all odds.

I am proud to work for UNICEF, which in addition to the provision of clean delivery kits, also provides emergency reproductive health supplies to all health partners working in Mingkaman, and supports community social mobilization activities and radio public service announcements so that women are aware of the importance of ante- and post-natal care, of giving birth in a health clinic and of breastfeeding. UNICEF does this, and much more, daily in South Sudan and many other countries around the world where innocent people are caught in civil conflict or affected by natural disasters.

This Father's Day, I will be enjoying some daddy-time with Sitara and my wife. But I will also be thinking of Kuei, Kang and their son, who will be two years old now. I hope that Kang is also enjoying some daddy-time with his son, with Kuei sitting beside them -- and that they are all safe, happy and healthy.

Kent Page is Senior Communication Advisor for UNICEF. Based in New York City, he is originally from Mississauga, Canada.

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