Chlong tonle – the other side of the river is so far for some women in Cambodia

A woman died today after giving birth to a healthy baby boy. We came to the health facility and saw her just in time to see the life fade from her eyes after hemorrhaging in the ward where there were four midwives and an obstetrician on duty. Only one staff was attending to the patient at the time of death – a student midwife. The student claimed she told the staff, but they were busy with other patients. The staff corroborated this. The fact that there was no prioritization for the emergency case is testament to how dysfunctional the health sector still is, and how poor the capacity of health staff are that this is allowed to happen. There won’t be a maternal audit, or changes to standard operating procedures, because this facility is not directly supported by a donor and the Ministry of Health is too poorly resourced and managed to do anything about just one case.

The term for childbirth in Khmer is chlong tonle, which literally means “crossing the river”; it’s dangerous and you don’t know if you’ll make it across. Death always leaves you stunned. It’s staggering when you see a case that was entirely preventable.

Read this related post written two years later on the silent courage of mothers in rural Cambodia.


  1. […] knew someone who died in childbirth. Most births weren’t even attended by skilled attendants. “Giving birth is like crossing a river,” goes an old Khmer proverb; it was so dangerous that families prepared for the likelihood of […]

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