Sunday, 3 July, 2022

Midwives: the Unsung Heroines of Bangladesh

Sir Frank Peters

Midwives: the Unsung Heroines of Bangladesh
Sir Frank Peters

Midwives are wingless angels, a Godsend to humanity! In times of war and peace, the noblest act any person can perform is to risk their own life in the pursuit of saving another. Those who do are special and become heroes and heroines in the eyes of both God and man.

There are heroes and heroines peppered throughout the pages of world history and Bangladesh has its fair share. I’m not referring to the likes of Bangabandhu or indeed the noble freedom fighters of the 1971 War of Independence. Much has already been written about them, but perhaps much more is deserved.

Nor am I referring to the wonderful noble, masked, nameless people in the medical profession who gallantly risked their lives – and the lives of their loved ones – during the peak of the recent Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic to save the lives of complete strangers.

In times of war and peace, the noblest act any person can perform is to risk their own life in the pursuit of saving another. Those who do are special and become heroes and heroines in the eyes of both God and man.

The Bangladeshi heroines to whom I refer are simple ordinary every day women folk who are common to most Bangladeshi villages. In the majority of cases, they’re uneducated, many cannot read or write, but they make an immense contribution to their community and nation.


Their input is immeasurable and priceless. Millions of people are walking on the green grass of Bangladesh today because of the knowledge passed down from generation to generation, their loving care and expertise.

I’m referring to the village midwives... remarkable ordinary next door neighbour folk who are taken for granted, but provide an extraordinary service at time of need. 

The UN estimates the population of Bangladesh is 167,885,689.

For most pregnant village women, giving birth at Ever Care, United, Popular or Square hospitals is just unaffordable and unimaginable. Most village women couldn’t even afford the taxi fare.

The majority of village births take place on a plastic sheet or clean empty rice sacks on the mud floor of the humble family home. The midwives generously employ Love, Comfort, Encouragement and liberal amounts of Understanding throughout the breath-taking apprehensive procedure. There are no drugs of any description involved.

Midwives are wingless angels, a Godsend to humanity, that’s for sure!

If there is such a classification as midwifery royalty, Hamida Begum (65) would be one of its Queens, but I’m sure every village has one or more.

Hamida has been helping make heavenly deliveries from Allah in Haydarabad (Gazipur) for over 30-years. She’s received countless curtain calls and standing ovations, following the healthy birth of about 1,000 babies.

1,000 Bangladeshi babies

She’s not quite sure of the number. She suspects it to be more, but settles on a conservative guessstimate. She said she never kept record – nobody did (and still don’t) – and that’s one of her personal regrets.

“Many children in Bangladesh villages have never celebrated a birthday. They do not know their date of birth. Their age is mere guesswork,” Hamida said.

“In a way I feel somewhat responsible for that. Looking back, if I had kept some kind of a record, perhaps even made a note on the calendar or even on a betel leaf, that problem would not exist here.”

“I think I speak for most village midwives when I say our sole concern is ensuring the birth of the baby is as painless as possible, that the baby and mother are safe and well.  Everything else is a side issue of little or no consequence at the time,” she said.

Hamida was married to one of the most beloved and distinguished Bangladeshi holy men, Guru Suruj Dewan. He died in 2018. (RIP)

Guru Suruj was a homeopathic doctor of renown who was born and raised in Haydarabad. He devoted his entire life to serving the people of the area, spiritually and medically. A religious festival is held every year in his honour.

Hamida’s midwifery training began when she was 35. “I assisted my grandma, who had assisted her grandma, who had assisted her grandma!

“Understandably, I was quite apprehensive at the first delivery, but I tried not to look nervous or appear to be nervous because grandma had warned me the mother giving birth would pick-up on any negative vibes and make the birth more difficult.”

She thanks Allah that she’s never lost a child. “There are early signs that indicate complications ahead. I was never prepared to take the risk of damaging the child nor mother. I recommended the mother is transported to the nearest government hospital, which is equipped to handle such emergencies,” she said.

Village midwives are used to distraught husbands or relatives arriving at their homes at ungodly hours, banging on the iron grill window, seeking their help and advice.

“It’s something you get used to,” said Hamida. “The birth might not be due for some days, but the husband panics, God love him, and I go there just to reassure him all is natural and that all will be well. Then I return to bed!”

Mother of five

Hamida has given birth to five children of her own. Ali (41), Shahida (36), Ali Nawaz (35), Moriyam (30) and Halima (27). She said she knows only too well what goes through the female mind and the ‘what if?” anxieties each pregnancy can bring.”

She does not advocate the use of pain-killing drugs. “This is how nature has been for thousands of years. The pain is almost instantly forgotten as soon as the baby is born.”

“Generally speaking, the only equipment needed at a birth is well-scrubbed, short-nailed, tender sympathetic hands, a caring smile and a tongue loaded with comforting words of reassurance.  Allah provides the rest,” she said.

Midwives are often referred to as  “unsung heroes” for the enormous, often thankless, role they play in saving lives, improving people’s health, and helping families thrive.

The midwives provide support and care during pregnancy, labour, birth, and after the baby is born.  They also empower women and adolescent girls by providing them with information and services on sexual and reproductive health issues. There’s now an international day to recognise the vast contribution midwives play in society. It’s celebrated on May 5 worldwide.

It’s birth Queens like Hamida Begum to whom this country owes a great debt, but, seemingly, they have to be satisfied with this humble tribute.  On behalf of the nation, I salute them, individually and collectively.


The writer is a human rights activist and foreign friend of Bangladesh