Empowering mothers by preventing injuries

Robert Zinser is surrounded by women whose lives were forever changed after receiving surgery to repair obstetric fistulas, a preventable childbirth injury that can lead to social isolation, nerve damage, and death.

Robert Zinser understands numbers. The economist and retired president for Asia at chemical giant BASF has spent his life analyzing and predicting future trends. So when he initiated a five-year, $3 million pilot project to reduce infant and maternal mortality in Nigeria – a country with the second highest mortality rate in the world – he was doing more than just betting it would make a difference. He knew it would.

“In Nigeria, 70 percent of births are home deliveries. If the labor goes on too long, a woman can suffer a fistula,” an injury that often results in a stillborn baby, causes chronic incontinence, and can lead to social isolation as well as infection, nerve damage, or death. “With fistulas, prevention is key,” says Zinser, who co-founded what became the Rotarian Action Group for Population Growth and Sustainable Development and serves as its CEO.

Using a comprehensive approach of better antenatal care and quality assurance techniques, the project has helped reduce maternal mortality rates in hospitals by 60 percent. Since 2005 they’ve also repaired 1,500 fistulas – 500 more than their initial goal – and added microcredit and vocational training to the pilot project.

“Many women with this condition had been thrown out of their homes and needed a way to make a living,” says Zinser, who is a past district governor and member of the Rotary Club of Ludwigshafen-Rheinschanze, Germany. “They didn’t even know the injury could be repaired until we started running radio programs showcasing true-to-life stories and community dialogues.”

A Rotary Foundation grant for $478,000, sponsored by Rotary District 9125 in Nigeria and the Rotary Club of Weissenburg, Germany, helped launch the project. It also attracted an additional $826,000 from the German government and the Aventis Foundation. Activities such as solar power and water projects, donations of materials including mosquito nets, and cash contributions complemented the effort.

“If you travel in the developing world, walk through slums, and talk to people, you know that the women are often dominated by the men,” says Zinser. “They are suffering. They lack support. Women cannot be empowered if they can’t make their own choices in antenatal care and child spacing. But if mothers are empowered and healthy, so are their families, leading to an alleviation of poverty and hunger.”

So what does the 85-year-old Zinser plan to tackle next? “Scaling up,” he says. “The time is ripe. Maternal health is in the spotlight because of the UN Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. We should replicate and publicize this pilot project.

”My friends ask me, ’Why don’t you go golfing with us?’ They don’t know how my Rotary work benefits me,” Zinser says. “More and more, scientists are advising that if you do good for other people, it will keep you young. When I’m in Africa, I feel I am the right man, at the right time, in the right place.”

Learn more about the Rotarian Action Group for Population Grown and Sustainable Development.

This story originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Rotarian.