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Empowering women to take control of their maternal health

women of Kalonga

With the support of their local women’s group, the women of the village of Kalonga, in central Malawi, have been empowered to identify their biggest health challenges and to collectively solve them.

The women attributed the high rates of stillbirths in the community to the distance they needed to travel to their nearest health facility, and so successfully lobbied for a bicycle ambulance. Access to information, to quality health services and to support are key in empowering women so they can lead their communities to improved health outcomes.

Through the establishment of a community women’s group, the women of Kalonga can access information regarding the importance of antenatal care, the complications that can occur during pregnancy and the benefits of delivering their baby in a health facility. The community had suffered many stillbirths, but through their women’s group, they have learnt how important it is to get skilled care from a midwife or a doctor during pregnancy and labour. The women needed a way to reach the health facility in good time for delivery and successfully lobbied for a bicycle ambulance. To ensure it is in good working order at all times, group members make monthly contributions for maintenance.

The women’s lobbying encouraged the men to take an active role in maternal health in their community. The village Head and the other men were taught how important it is for women to attend the health centre and they now accompany their wives to the health facility and encourage all women to give birth there.

Adesi Arnold is awaiting the birth of her second child. She had an uncomplicated first birth at home, but after joining the women’s groups she became aware of how crucial it is to have a hospital delivery: “My first baby was delivered at home with no complications, but joining the women’s group has made me aware of the danger signs for complications during pregnancy, so I am more likely to go to the health facility to deliver this baby. My husband supports me – he buys me food and has accompanied me on the four visits I’ve made to the antenatal clinic.”

Women and Children First has been working in Malawi with our local partner, the MaiKhanda Trust, since 2006. Our initial 6-year project, funded by the Health Foundation, ran until 2012 and focused on the districts of Kasungu, Lilongwe and Salima, in central Malawi. Over the course of six years we established over 800 women’s groups.. The project saw an increase in the number of women seeking health services and deciding to give birth in health facilities. Working with communities and improving the quality of maternal and newborn care, the project achieved an impressive 22% reduction in newborn mortality.

Women and Children First is currently working with MaiKhanda on projects in NkhotaKota, Ntchisi and Salima districts, funded by The Big Lottery Fund, Comic Relief and ViiV Healthcare Positive Action for Children Fund. New issues being addressed include the issue of HIV transmission from mother to child and the value of family planning in improving maternal and newborn health. Our work also supports women to lobby for improvements in health service quality and accessibility.