Daw Shan Ma is 56 years old and has been a Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA) for all of her adult life. She completed a 6-month training with the Red Cross in Bago region, Burma, when she was just 18 years old, learning to home deliver babies and refer to the local hospital in case of emergencies.
After years of serving her community in Burma, she travelled to Thailand in March 1998 to start a new life. Her husband had left and re-married, leaving Daw Shan Ma with no regular income, forcing her to seek work elsewhere.
She now helps hundreds of women from Burma to safely deliver their babies in a Thai border village. These women form part of a large mobile population on the Thai-Burma border; crossing the border frequently depending on where and when they can find work.
Unfortunately these women face many hardships. Most lack documents and therefore work for extremely low wages. They must avoid encountering the local police, who may ask for bribes or deport them. This leaves them unable to travel very far, including to Thai hospitals when they are ready to deliver, and unable to pay, meaning they rely on local TBAs like Daw Shan Ma to deliver their babies.
Daw Shan Ma, like other TBAs in the area, receives annual refresher training from Mae Tao Clinic, which helps to keep their knowledge of obstetric and neonatal care clear and up-to-date, helping to save the lives of mothers and babies in case of emergencies. She also regularly receives supplies from Mae Tao Clinic, such as sterile gloves, scissors and medicines, which help her carry out safe deliveries.
Like her clients, Daw Shan Ma herself finds it a struggle to survive on the margins of Thai society; she earns no money from being a TBA, so she has irregular work as a vegetable seller. She often spends her own money to help her clients, often taking them into her home for two weeks after they have given birth. When asked why she devotes her life to her community, she says, “I have always wanted to help people. When I see these women who are poor, uneducated and afraid of the police, I feel I must help”.
Daw Shan Ma is unable to recall how many babies she has safely delivered in her lifetime. She feels it must be at least a thousand, given that she delivers 20-30 babies a year. As an experienced TBA, she is looked up to by the other TBAs in the village and inspires them to also give as many vulnerable women access to safe deliveries.