07/11/12 : Women’s groups reduce newborn mortality by one third in developing countries

Efforts to empower pregnant women to take control of their own health will result in a reduction of close to one third in newborn mortality in poor rural communities in Bangladesh and India.

Glenys Kinnock chairs panel at Dissemination WorkshopA five-year collaboration between UCL’s Institute of Child Health, newborn and maternal health charity Women and Children First, and NGO partners in Bangladesh and India has demonstrated the powerful effect that empowering and educating women about maternal health has on newborn mortality.

Indian NGO Ekjut and the Diabetic Association of Bangladesh found that giving women the support of each other’s company and the opportunity to share their concerns has a startling effect: in selected villages where the project was active in the Indian states of Jharkhand and Odisha newborn mortality has fallen substantially

UCL and Women and Children First have completed similar projects in India, Nepal and Malawi, all of which have demonstrated that the approach saves lives by approximately a third.  Professor Anthony Costello of UCL said “Evidence to date indicates that women’s groups not only save newborn lives but empower women to improve maternal and newborn health.  Women in groups are more likely to practise hygiene in the home, have the support of local mothers, attend antenatal care, breastfeed their babies and know when to get medical treatment in an emergency.

“Women’s groups help break down barriers. Providing an opportunity for women to attend such groups ensures they learn more about how to look after themselves and their babies properly during pregnancy and childbirth.  It also means they can talk to each other, share their concerns and get advice from friends who understand their needs.”

Ros Davies, Chief Executive of Women and Children First, said: “In these areas, pregnant women are often not regarded as important. They might not be allowed to go to antenatal care or give birth in hygienic conditions with a doctor or midwife.  They may not even be able to share their concerns with other women who have been a similar situation.

“I was in India earlier this year and I met a woman who told me that attending a women’s group had saved her life. She was close to giving birth and had been suffering with pre-eclampsia; her mother-in-law was only giving her bread to eat and she was very weak. Other members of the group saw her and raised the alarm. They helped her arrange a visit to a health centre. Eventually she received a caesarean, which saved her and her baby’s life.”

Ms Davies added that the project demonstrated how simple and low cost interventions could lead to a huge improvement in the health of pregnant women and save newborn lives in the developing world.

Working together with the partners in Bangladesh and India, Women and Children First developed a good practice guide to assist the spread of the approach in other areas of Asia and Africa.  

To mark the end of the project the partners held a workshop in London on Thursday, 1 November, to allow members to showcase their work and share the findings. Over 100 people attended the workshop which was designed to encourage aid policy makers and practitioners to look carefully at the methods developed by the project and promote their adoption in other parts of the world.

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