Organization Spotlight

Circle of Health International

By Cristin Marona

Local Sri Lankan researchers trained by COHI, Project Coordinator Adam Rosenbloom, and Project Manager Sera Bonds

Local Sri Lankan researchers trained by COHI, Project Coordinator Adam Rosenbloom, and Project Manager Sera Bonds

The World Health Organization estimates that 1,500 women die daily from pregnancy or childbirth related complications. Most occur in developing countries and most are avoidable. One organization, Circle of Health International (COHI), is working to change this situation through a combination of advocacy, access to services and education. COHI’s mission is to build the capacity of women’s health care providers in crisis settings.

COHI is, by its own admission, a small but mighty relief agency. Boston-based, COHI is comprised of a few dedicated staff members, a strong board of directors and a reliance on loyal volunteers, both domestically and abroad. COHI’s mission is to work in a collaborative effort with local NGOs in order to combat challenges of maternal and reproductive health. It provides volunteer midwives, obstetric and gynecological physicians, and public health practitioners an opportunity to work with teams across the globe. These teams carry out COHI’s mission and specifically focus on training midwives and reducing maternal mortality.

The organization is grounded in values that support social change, non-violence, volunteerism and activism. In addition to working with local grassroots organizations, COHI recruits and manages clinical and technical support at its field sites. COHI relies on private donations, grants and fund-raising to support its mission in promoting the health and safety of women in disaster situations around the world.

COHI came into focus formally six years ago. A certified midwife, founder and former director Sera Bonds knew there were strategies that could be employed to better serve women globally. A Boston University School of Public Health International Health concentrator, Bonds cultivated the concept for an international women’s health organization with colleagues and other students. According to Bonds, COHI was “born in the bowels of BUSPH.”

After graduating in 2003, Bonds was offered her definition of the “dream job” from a prestigious and large NGO, but promptly turned it down to pursue COHI’s development. In reference to this choice, Bonds notes that the organization’s collaboration and partnerships with local NGOs provided a unique opportunity to attempt to bring sustainable change in health practices in maternal and reproductive health. “COHI was the job I wanted, and the one no one was doing.” Bonds says, adding that “public health is about social change and that is often what is missing.”

From a lofty idea in a BUSPH classroom, COHI moved on to their two first projects. After much doubt, question and dismay, Bonds assembled enough support to pursue partnerships in both Tibet and in Israel/West Bank. In 2004, the Tibet and Israel/West Bank projects were launched, and COHI began sending volunteers. Admittedly, the early days “were as grassroots as grassroots gets,” but unique problems were not without unique solutions.

Tibetan midwife working with COHI

Tibetan midwife working with COHI

In Tibet, COHI partnered with the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund. Focused on lowering fertility rates and increasing access to basic health care, COHI performed an assessment of the needs and concentrated their efforts on hygiene and education. Challenges included logistical difficulties in merely getting to the locations, a lack of access to water and political barriers embedded in the country.

The Israel/West Bank project provided a very different set of obstacles. The area had a large population of service providers living in a repressive world. Access to services for pregnant women became increasingly urgent when Israel began to construct a security wall around the West Bank. Partnerships between COHI and the Israeli and Palestinian sides have united midwifery efforts in the bleakest of cultural circumstances. This delicate relationship has been one of the most impressive successes that COHI has seen. These midwives facing each other from fiercely opposed standpoints come together in peace to meet the challenges facing the women in this region. As Bonds explains, “war continues to go on and their commitment to each other is present. The perspectives are beginning to change and it is just so courageous.” Bonds says she could share stories of hundreds of women dying in childbirth—tragedies that continue daily. However, the efforts of COHI in Israel/West Bank give her hope and a promise of change.

In the last five years, COHI has broadened its presence to Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Louisiana and now Haiti.  In the wake of the January earthquake that hit Port au Prince, relief efforts flooded through the jet ways of Haiti’s capital. Aid came from governments, NGOs, individuals and the local population. Large names dominated the news of aid and relief. As relief moves to recovery, COHI is staking its claim and following its mission to provide assistance.

COHI volunteer in Sri Lanka

COHI volunteer in Sri Lanka

Volunteer midwives took the maiden voyage on behalf of COHI to Haiti. Logistical challenges such as a lack of accessible roads, fuel and automobiles were the first struggles. In addition, the closest they could get to Port au Prince was the nearby Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a quick trip turned into a lengthy journey. As COHI midwives moved into Haiti, the extent of the devastation became obvious and exceeded anything that was previously anticipated. The peril of Haitians outside the city became apparent, and the team assisted those in need while moving towards the epicenter of the disaster.

It is of note that COHI’s team members are not paid staff, but rather volunteers who choose to make these trips on behalf of COHI. Specialists in the field of public health, medicine and midwifery represent COHI and have partnered with a local midwifery organization to provide assistance.

While the world cried as the true effects of the earthquake were revealed, COHI mobilized into action. Identifying the needs from the ground, they orchestrated a plan to assist the women that fit their specialty. Maternal mortality risks were looming and COHI’s response was engaged.

This year COHI’s leadership transitioned from Sera Bonds to another BUSPH alum, Leilani Johnson. Boston-based and with years of COHI involvement, Johnson continues Bonds’ mission of seeking projects that meet the aim of COHI. Focused on safe motherhood, gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS, in just six short years, COHI has made a valuable contribution to the global reproductive and maternal health scene.

To learn more about Circle of Health International, please visit http://www.cohintl.org.