Jennifer Vibert, Program Officer at the Canadian Red Cross, recently returned from South Sudan, where the Red Cross, with support from the Government of Canada, is implementing a five-year (2014–2019) mother, newborn and child health project.

Jennifer tells us more about the work the Canadian Red Cross is doing to improve the lives of women and children in South Sudan.

Can you describe the region where the Red Crossis working?
The Canadian Red Cross is working with the South Sudan Red Cross in Gogrial West County, one of the country’s less conflict-affected areas. It’s a very remote, rural area where there are many isolated villages. There are few roads and limited infrastructure – and very few, highly dispersed health facilities in these communities. This means that for many people, reaching the nearest clinic can mean hours of walking or more. We are working to close this gap so that women and children can get the care they need.

What are some of the key signs of progress you’ve seen?
As of now, we’ve got two clinical outreach teams up and running. They travel to villages, essentially bringing health care directly to people who need it. The outreach teams are made up of a nurse, a midwife, a clinical officer and a vaccinator. They are trained to detect and treat illnesses such as respiratory infections, diarrhea, and malaria. These are all easily treatable, but without antibiotics or basic treatment medicines they can be deadly.

In partnership with the South Sudan Red Cross, we’ve also recruited more than 1,700 Red Cross volunteers directly from the villages. The volunteers meet with families to talk about nutrition and how to improve the health of their children. They also do basic health screenings and treatments for children under the age of five, and encourage women to use positive health practises.

How have the clinical outreach teams been received?
When the very first patient was treated, it was a wonderful moment, an incredible milestone for the project, and a testament to the hard work so many people have put into it. Since then, the health teams have been really well received in the villages. The demand for care has been very high, far more than we anticipated—everywhere they go there are always long lines of people. There is no doubt that the people are seeing the difference.

Two years in, how is the project changing the lives of people?
Quite simply, people are getting the care they need. Pregnant women are getting more information about their health and are being seen for more prenatal care visits. Children are being vaccinated against common diseases, and are monitored and treated for common infections. But we’re also changing people’s lives by improving access to clean water. So far the project has dug 40 water points and repaired another 30. This means women who used to walk for more than an hour every day to fetch water—often dirty river water—can now get clean water right in their villages. People now have enough water to cook and clean. They are not getting sick or dying from drinking unclean water. Some women are even planting gardens around the water points, increasing their access to food. This has a huge impact on their overall health and nutrition.

What has been the key to success?
Trust has been essential. We know that we can’t just arrive with nurses and medicines and expect communities to welcome us with open arms. It takes a lot of trust from the communities to gain real acceptance. But because the project is implemented by the South Sudan Red Cross, who know and understand their own communities, the trust is there. This means we can build meaningful relationships within the communities we serve.

What inspires you most about the project?
Without a doubt, the people on the ground, especially the volunteers and staff of the South Sudanese Red Cross. Virtually every single one of them has suffered in some way as a result of the conflict and instability in recent years, but they still come to work or volunteer every single day, despite some unimaginable hardship. They want to make a difference for themselves, their families and their neighbours. I’m also inspired about the future. We’re doing everything we can to make sure our impact is lasting. For example, we’re training local mechanics so that water points can be fixed if they break down. We’re also funding the training of midwives who will then be able to provide clinical services in the project area after it is done. These are things that will ensure that the long-term health of these communities is in their own hands.

Red Cross worker Jennifer Vibert in South Sudan