This time last year, I was in Sarangani Province

A page from Working Mom’s October 2010 issue. They did a cover story on me, featuring my role in UNICEF.


A few days ago, my youngest sister, Pauline, gave birth to her first child. She and her husband Mathieu decided on a midwife-assisted birthing process. This is in Canada, where the best health care is free for everyone. The downside of a public healthcare program like Canada’s though is that you don’t get to choose your doctor and sometimes you feel like they’re rushing you so they can move on to the next patient. My sister wanted a more intimate and natural experience. They almost chose a home birth and a water birth. All this would have been covered by the government as well. In the end, my nephew was born at a hospital. After almost 48 hours of labour, the midwife turned over the case to a medical doctor. Lucien Delio was born a perfect little boy. He and my sister went home a few hours after. Everybody happy.

I was reminded of my trip to Sarangani with UNICEF. It was exactly a year ago. They brought me there to see the work of our UNICEF team on the ground, focusing on maternal and infant health as well as breastfeeding. I met mothers in different barangays and municipalities, visited municipal health centres, got to know the work of midwives and saw lots of beautiful babies. This story has a lot of photos, so please click on “read more” to see the rest of the shots I took. I fell in love with each baby I saw. And I’m happy to report that exclusive breastfeeding was practised by most, if not all, the mothers I saw.

August is Breastfeeding Month. There have been many activities promoting breastfeeding awareness. L.A.T.C.H. did an interesting photo exhibit of urban/celebrity moms breastfeeding in public. There are other campaigns. I think it’s wonderful. I just want to add… the importance of exclusively breastfeeding your baby from birth to six months. This means no water, no supplements, no baby food. Breastmilk is pure, perfect and complete. That’s all a baby needs. Exposing an infant to water, especially in our country, could put the baby at risk of infection or disease. From six months onwards you can start giving solids and ofcourse complementary feeding your child with breastmilk up to as long as you want (two years is recommended).

Let me go back my Sarangani story.


Beautiful Sarangani Bay


Mothers in line for their regular health checks.


A breastfeeding mom and a three-week old beautiful baby.


Breastfeeding moms.


The medical staff of Maitum municipal hospital. There is no provincial hospital in Sarangani. Only municipal hospitals and barangay health centres. I was shocked at first but I learned that the solution isn’t always about building infrastructure. They would have a problem keeping the hospital staffed and well-equipped (in a perfect world this wouldn’t even be a problem). Also the way the geographical form of the province doesn’t help either. The province is cut into two, separated by a bay and another province. What was needed immediately were more Skilled Attendants at Birth or midwives.


Barangay Lagundi’s health station. Here in photo are midwives and skilled attendants. Midwives are trained health professionals who are able to deliver babies as long as there are no medical complications. Midwives can recognize medical complications and are able to refer patients to medical doctors in the municipal hospitals. Midwives are not to be confused with mang-hihilots as they are not recognized/accredited by the Dept of Health.


A barangay with mothers from the T’boli tribe.


Jocelyn Lazilla, a midwife who services several barangays in Maitum. Jocelyn drives her motorcycle through rough roads in order to deliver babies. She was the only midwife in that area of almost four or five barangays. No doctors eitiher! Jocelyn is a modern day hero. It was a privilege to meet her and other midwifes in Sarangani. This particular barangay was a scene of an encounter between the MILF and the military. Jocelyn and her team can bravely pass through areas where fighting occurs. She says that at one time, both sides stopped their gunfire in order for her to pass through so she could do the important task of delivering a baby. I was on this visit with UNICEF Representative Vanessa Tobin. She wrote about meeting Jocelyn here.


Breastfeeding. Natural. Universal.


At Kiamba Lying-In Clinic just a few steps away from the Maitum Municipal Hospital. This was our first stop. I was so enamoured by the children. I remember this was the place where I was first asked by one of the mothers, “Paano ba ako hindi na magkakaanak. Kasi anim na anak ko. Ayoko na.”/ How can I stop having children? I have six children. I don’t want any more. It was a harsh reality. There’s still a lot that needs to be done in terms of maternal health and reproductive health.


Her gaze haunts me up to now. It was difficult to hear her story.  I wanted to breakdown and cry but couldn’t. I also wanted her to stop recounting the story. But we were with journalists who were there to listen and tell her story. This woman had just lost her daughter-in-law who died from childbirth. It was to be her sixth child. The baby didn’t make it as well.


The barangay health centre had huge Manila paper reports of what had happened to that woman’s daughter-in-law. They brought her to the municipal hospital too late. By the time they got there she needed serious medical attention. I remember her saying they tried to bring her to General Santos City but it was too late.


Lovely seaside community.


Too cute. Mom says he is exclusively breastfed.


Lots of cute babies in the next batch of photos after the jump.


A young mother who exclusively breastfeeds her baby. I was going crazy by this point. All the babies were just so so beautiful.


Here she is again. Beside another cutie baby.


And here they are, four adorable babies! All exclusively breastfed.


Community support is important. Our new UNICEF campaign on breastfeeding stresses the importance of the support of family, husbands, the community, workplaces.


Sarangani farmland.


We visited the Mangulo Day Care Center supported by UNICEF and Starbucks.


At the day care.


UNICEF Representative Vanessa Tobin at the day care.


Children in Sarangani


Mother and child in recovery room. The baby was just born hours before we met them. The baby had latched on and started breastfeeding.


Beautiful child. Newborn.


It was very touching to see couples (from different faiths) at the same maternity ward. Here a Muslim couple waiting for delivery. The wife is already in labour.


At the next room, this couple enjoys their newborn baby. The husband is a member of the CAFGU, militia.


T’boli mothers. I loved their textiles!


T’boli mom, breastfeeding.


At the end of our visit, we met with Sarangani’s governor Migs Dominguez (left) and Steve Chiongbian, the vice governor. We had mentioned, that there seemed to be a need to hire more midwives in the barangays. Due to the lack of medical hospitals and the vastness of the land, some mothers and infants could be put at risk during pregnancy and delivery. Having one midwife in each barangay could make deliveries safer. At the end of our meeting, Gov. Dominguez promised to hire meet these targets.


I am about to go on a UNICEF visit in another part of Mindanao soon. This one will be even more intense and life-changing. It’s an urgent story. I will definitely be sharing my findings here. I don’t often go on UNICEF trips because home with my children is where I am really needed. My last UNICEF trip was one year ago. I sometimes wonder if my trip or involvement even makes a difference. There are so many needs in our poor country. What could one visit do?

Last night, I had a Twitter conversation with Governor Dominguez. I asked him what happened after our UNICEF team left. He gave me some quick facts and figures:

-48 midwives have been deployed by the province to barangays without midwives.
– Breastfeeding increased to 76% (I don’t have the previous figure).
– Facility-based deliveries increased from 23% to 53% (We had learned that most rural women prefer to give birth at home, as they are intimidated with hospitals and medical clinics. This is why they also choose to be assisted by a manghihilot rather than a licensed midwife or doctor. The new figures show an increase in clinic births.)
– Rise in skilled birth attendants (midwives) from 43% to 70%
– Contraceptive prevalence rate from 41% to 54%
– Fully immunized children rate increased from 89% to 94%
– Established 12 new birthing homes, 100% sponsored Philhealth coverage.

Things are looking up in Sarangani.

Please check out the official UNICEF website. There are many ways you can help our children.

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