Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Kristyn Zalota is the Founder of CleanBirth.org, a nonprofit organization that works to improve infant and maternal health in Laos. From 2008-2011, she worked with Burmese, Cambodian and Ugandan women and saw that prenatal and postnatal care was largely unavailable in their countries. Motivated to make birth safer, she discovered AYZH Clean Birth Kits, birthing supplies proven to reduce infection and death. Having learned about the dire state of birthing in Laos, she partnered in 2012 with Our Village Associate (OVA) to bring Clean Birth Kits and education to southern Laos. As the Founder of CleanBirth.org, Kristyn is honored to provide nurses with the adequate resources, funding and training needed to lower infant and maternal mortality rates in Laos, which are among the highest globally.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Kristyn Zalota: Following completion of a MA program at Yale University, I worked on a variety of international projects. After becoming a mother myself, I began to focus specifically on empowering women in the developing world. I had the chance to work with mothers and children in Thailand, Cambodia, and Uganda. These experiences led me to train as a doula and a Lamaze educator, and ultimately start CleanBirth.org.
Women LEAD: You are the Founder of CleanBirth, a nonprofit organization that works to improve infant and maternal health in Laos, where infant and mortality rates are among the highest globally. Can you tell us about CleanBirth?
Kristyn Zalota: CleanBirth.org seeks to prevent the needless deaths of mothers and babies in Laos, where the maternal mortality rate is worse than Afghanistan’s rate and infant mortality is worse than Sudan’s. In the villages where we work, women and babies die at even higher rates, due in part to their practice of birthing alone in the jungle.
In partnership with a Lao non-profit, CleanBirth.org trains village nurses in the use and distribution of infection-preventing Clean Birth Kits (birthing supplies). Through an alliance with the Yale University School of Nursing, we also train the nurses in the WHO’s Essentials of Newborn Care. The nurses then train local women, Village Volunteers, who live in the remote villages where many mothers give birth.
In 2013, our first full year, CleanBirth.org provided 2,000 Clean Birth Kits and trained sixteen district nurses and twenty Village Volunteers.
Women LEAD: What are the biggest challenges to improving maternal and infant health in Laos?
Kristyn Zalota: Reaching the women and getting them care in pregnancy, during birth and postpartum is the biggest challenge to improving maternal and infant health in Laos. Over 90% of women in the area where CleanBirth.org works birth at home without a trained attendant. Why? Distances are vast. Roads are often washed out during the rainy season. Transportation is expensive. Clinics are mistrusted for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the women feel that their traditions are not respected.
Women LEAD: What do you love the most about your work with CleanBirth?
Kristyn Zalota: I love giving local women the tools and resources to meet their own challenges. The nurses and Village Volunteers who we train share the same culture, religion and language as their the mothers they serve. They are able to come up with the most appropriate and likely-to-work solutions to improving maternal-child health.
Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Kristyn Zalota: Motherhood connects me to other women in a strong way. When I hear a mother say that her baby died from a simple infection caused by a dirty cord-cutting tool, my heart hurts for her incredible loss. I want to ensure that she and her neighbors have the knowledge and supplies needed to ensure a safe birth. It’s not enough to give them a kit. It’s crucial that local nurses and volunteers are trained to spread information. Knowledge is empowering and women must have access to it.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Kristyn Zalota: Carol Perks, an Australian nurse who has transformed maternal and child healthcare in northern Laos, has inspired my maternal heath work in Laos. She has worked for more than 20 in remote Sayaboury Province in 1991 for Save the Children. When she arrived infant and maternal mortality rate were abysmal, with only 7% of women having a skilled attendant at their births. (Carol Perks Presentation, Save the Children, 2000) With community officials, she developed a comprehensive model for providing healthcare in rural communities, with a strong focus on maternal and child health. The model is effective: within 3 years a District in another northern province of Laos achieved Millenium Development Goals 4 and 5.
Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality?
Kristyn Zalota: I love Girls Globe for learning about issues effecting women and girls worldwide. For me, women’s rights are so closely tied to maternal health. So a lot of the tweets and blogs I read are related to maternal health. I particularly love the work that www.maternova.com does to highlight low-cost innovations that save moms & newborns. Also the Maternal Health Task Force is a terrific resource for getting evidence-based information about maternal-child health.