Appalling birth conditions in poor nations spur two women into action

Appalling birth conditions in poorer nations inspired two women to take action, writes Vivian Chiu

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 8:53pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 8:55pm

Alicia Wieser and Samar Shaheryar never met while they were in New York, working in finance, but their paths crossed in Tokyo in 2010 when Wieser volunteered at Tokyo Helps, a charity set up by Shaheryar to raise funds for disaster relief worldwide. They have been good friends ever since.

Their passion for helping others continued after relocating to Hong Kong. When the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011, they organised Hong Kong Helps Japan, and collected US$120,000 for disaster relief.

"In Japan, the fundraising culture is not so well developed. When disasters happen, people just shut themselves off. But Hong Kong has an impressive fundraising infrastructure. People are socially aware and donate generously to charities," Wieser says.

Moving beyond simply accepting donations, the duo recently launched a social enterprise, packaging a sustainable business and a cause that is tied together neatly with a certificate to verify ethical working conditions.

They created Baby Hero, a line of clothing, to generate money to help mothers and infants in developing countries. With each purchase of an ethically produced baby outfit, the pair give something back: a birthing kit for expectant mothers in Pakistan.

"By connecting business with charity, we harness the power of consumers to support our cause instead of relying on periodic grants or donations," Wieser says.

Both women gave birth in Hong Kong and received excellent hospital care, but they were keenly aware that mothers in many developing countries deliver on dirt floors, without a skilled midwife or hospital for hundreds of kilometres. Newborns in cold climates often die from hypothermia and, without immunisation, from infectious diseases.

About 800 women in developing countries die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth every day, according to the World Health Organisation. About five million children aged less than 12 months died last year alone. Shaheryar says most of those deaths occurred in Africa and South Asia, and that many were preventable.

This is how companies should be doing business today

"If I were less fortunate and had given birth in a poor home in Pakistan, I might not have survived," says Shaheryar, who has Pakistani heritage.

Baby Hero is collaborating with paediatrician Shaun Morris from Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, who developed the kit for distribution in Pakistan's Punjab province.

The kit, designed to reduce the chance of infection during birth, even at home, includes a plastic sheet to spread on the floor, a sterile blade to cut the umbilical cord, antiseptic lotion, a sunflower-oil based moisturiser to trap the infant's body heat, a temperature sensitive sticker and a mylar blanket. Each kit costs just US$5.

Morris has organised a network of community health workers who will soon start delivering the kits to women in the third trimester of their pregnancies, and educate them about its use. The results of the intervention will be studied and, depending on the outcome, the kit may be used elsewhere. It is hoped the kit can reduce maternal and infant mortality rates by up to 40 per cent.

The women say that while Baby Hero helps mothers and infants in the developing world, it must also operate on ethical principles.

The shop's garments are made from organic cotton, grown without chemicals that can be harmful to farmers and the environment, and have fair trade certification.

"Our garment workers in India receive a fair wage. They work with dignity in a safe, sanitary and well-ventilated environment. They can sit down when they work and have breaks. These are important principles to us but they're neglected in the clothing industry," Shaheryar says.

She says factories have to make inexpensive little changes to improve conditions for workers.

"Organic garments which are made in factories without fair trade practices are not necessarily cheaper than ours. We just have to focus on it and say our customers want us to pay factory workers fair wages.

"We sell our products to women and infants. Many of our factory workers are women and we want to support their ability to make money.

"We wouldn't want to exploit them to make clothes which generate donations to help other women and children. We want the entire chain to be ethical."

Wieser adds: "This is how companies should be doing business today, taking care of the people, planet and profit."

Baby Hero is available at Tiny Footprints in Central and Babushka in Sai Kung, and online through BaoBae and Baby Central.


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