Ashland high school grad Rachel Zaslow, executive director of Mother Health International, trains midwives in Northern Uganda and has built a clinic there in hopes of shrinking that nation’s infant and maternal mortality rates. - Photo from Rachel Zaslow


ASHLAND — After graduating from Ashland High School a dozen years ago, Rachel Zaslow jumped into her two main passions — midwifery and Africa.

Now, as executive director of Mother Health International, Zaslow trains scores of midwives in Northern Uganda, has built a clinic there and works to shrink the nation's infant mortality rate, one of the highest in the world.

Torn by a 23-year civil war, Northern Uganda also has one of the world's highest birth rates (more than seven per mother). Many of the mothers die during or after childbirth because they live far from clinics or are discharged immediately and bleed to death on the way home.

Home for the holidays, Zaslow, 30, will give a presentation, "War and Birth: Midwives' Perspective in Northern Uganda," at 7:30 tonight at Havurah Shir Hadash, 185 N. Mountain Ave. It is free and open to the public. Zaslow's father, David, is rabbi of the Havurah.

Zaslow got her start in 1998 when she trained as a midwife in Ghana. She continued her studies in New England and earned her bachelor's degree in Women & Gender Studies at Hampshire College. She now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is completing doctoral studies in the same subjects at Rutgers University. She spends part of each year in Northern Uganda and has extended the reach of Mother Health to quake-troubled Haiti, which, she noted, also has extreme infant and maternal mortality.

Zaslow recalled her work in Uganda starting in 2006 as the long civil war wound down.

"I worked in a hospital where women abducted and raped by rebels were forced to give birth, with the idea that the babies would become soldiers in the rebel army," she said. "There was very little staff and it was crowded. The mothers were lined up on tables and as soon as they delivered, they were sent out, hemorrhaging. So many women were dying needlessly."

Many mothers traumatized by rape and sexual abuse were unable to push during labor, Zaslow said. The staff would hit and attack them to spur delivery.

"Unimaginable things happened," she said.

Zaslow created a nonprofit organization called Earth Birth Women's Health Collective that recently merged with Mother Health International.

Its mission over the years has been to create birth centers and train local midwives, using the "best care" model that incorporates some practices of Western medicine but retains the foundation of traditional reproductive health care — such as using sharp-edged grass blades to cut the umbilical cord.

Zaslow noted that Ugandan midwives traditionally didn't sew up episiotomies, leading to many bleeding deaths, so she introduced the practice of suturing the incisions.

With a budget of $200,000, Zaslow keeps a staff of 30 trained Ugandan midwives, built the only clinic within 75 kilometers and bought an ambulance that can fetch laboring mothers from remote bush lands and take them home when they are well enough. The clinic, in the town of Atiak, has 50 midwives in training and does about 20 pre-partum visits and up to five deliveries a day.

The civil war killed many of the men and took a toll on the economy, so Zaslow organized staff and patients to start sewing, beading and gardening. They sell items they make, such as baby slings, hats and clothes, she said.

"The fact is that women's bodies get used as tools of war — and our world is such that not everyone can access health care. We need to find better ways," Zaslow said.

"I'm not going to sleep well till everyone has it."

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John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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