Motherhood in Cambodia: My Unfair Advantage


I've been a mother for nearly two months now. I've had a lot of good days, and some rough days, and lots somewhere in between. My Cambodian neighbors have shrieked in delight when I've taken Declan for walks and handed him over for auntie time. A mother across the street with a two month old has held up her daughter for comparison with my son, pointing out that, while her daughter has hair everywhere, my son is as bald as a pig.

It's easy for me to think I have a comparable life to the Cambodian mothers I know. But when we talk about our children's births, I realize that's not really true. 

I'm reminded that because of my language, my husband's job, and my income, I had a vastly different experience.

I traveled to Bangkok and received prenatal care from an American-trained Thai physician, fluent in English. Samitivej Hospital, where I delivered, is certified by the Joint Commission - the same agency that certifies hospitals in the United States. My birth was attended by a doula, who provided intense emotional support to my husband and I. My entire three-day hospital stay was about one-fifth the cost of similar care in America - but equal to three years' salary for the average Cambodian. And even those costs are covered by medical insurance through my husband's job - a benefit unheard of by most people here.

When I examine the details of my pregnancy and birth experience, the disparity between it and that of the average Cambodian woman glares back at me.

Women in Cambodia are literally risking their lives every time they bring a new child into the world.


"Women are dying because they lack basic emergency obstetric care and due to the limited availability of trained birth attendants."

Cambodia has one of the highest maternal death rate in Southeast Asia. Approximately 1,700 Cambodian women die every year from preventable causes during pregnancy or childbirth. 

Almost half of women deliver outside of a clinic or hospital. And many of these are not the midwife-attended, happy home births we hear about in America. Almost 30% of Cambodian women have no one helping them during labor who has received professional medical training.

And their babies are at even higher risk.

Every year, an estimated 10,000 infants die during or shortly after birth. And approximately fifty children under the age of five die...every day.

Those are all statistics taken from UNICEF Cambodia. I've also heard many stories from my Cambodian friends about their birth experiences that are heart breaking. One friend's sister had a difficult delivery, and the doctor began hitting her abdomen to make the baby come out, even though the mother screamed at him to stop. Another friend labored in an open ward with a dozen other women, alone because the clinic refused to allow her husband to attend her. 

Every so often, another story appears in the newspaper about a poor woman in labor who was refused entrance to a clinic or hospital because she lacked money to pay for care. One such woman delivered her stillborn baby alone when her husband didn't have $70 to pay for the hospital bed - an amount many Americans spend without blinking on a trip to Target or a nice date night out on the town.

As a new mother, these stories cut into my heart in a way I never felt before becoming a mother.

There are many things I will never experience in life because I won the genetic and geographic lottery. I am a white, native-English-speaking, passport-carrying, wealthy-beyond-comparison-with-the-rest-of-the-world American.

That is a hard truth that is difficult to swallow when I want to feel like I am equal with my friends and neighbors here - knowing that, in some ways, life will never be equal for us.

One of the health clinics where SP works with staff to improve mothers' health

Cambodia does have hope, and things are changing for the better. Samaritan's Purse is taking part in that work. One of SP's projects is the Maternal Child Health project in Kratie province, in southeast Cambodia. We visited Kratie last year (you can read about our trip - day 1 and day 2). Last month, SP ran an awareness campaign to spotlight the work in Kratie, bringing hope to mothers in one of the least developed provinces in the country.

Although the campaign is over, the website, 10 Days for M'Dai is still active. The photos and videos are gorgeous, and you can read stories from Cambodian women about their hopes and fears surrounding childbirth.

It's easy to ignore stories and statistics like these when I'm not seeing the faces that could be behind them every day. I hope these stories motivate you to seek out ways to help others who don't have the same choices you do - whether due to location, finances, or prejudice. 

And who knows? You might decide helping SP is your way of helping women in Cambodia have safe births and healthy babies.

A Harvest of Blessing
post signature