Mothers and babies gathered for a Maternity Open Day in Kenya. Photo: Naomi Garneau for Action Against Hunger.
Editor’s Note: Material for this article was gathered before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, prevention measures including social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings have been implemented across all our programs.
When women give birth under the care of skilled professionals, maternal and neonatal death rates are greatly reduced. But in rural Kenya, myths and misconceptions often deter expectant mothers from visiting health facilities and accessing the reproductive care they need.
Maternity Open Days, organized by the Systems Enhancement for Transformative Health project, aim to change that reality. This community-driven approach brings together mothers, caregivers and healthcare practitioners, providing valuable insight on prenatal, delivery, and postpartum care and enabling women to understand what to expect in a maternity unit.
Hezron Salamba Matumusi understands the risks of home birth all too well. The 49-year-old father of six lost his baby boy a few years ago when his wife went into preterm labour. He believes that his son might have been saved had he taken his wife to the hospital when she started to have unusual abdominal pains. Instead, he waited, and the baby died in the womb.
This painful experience encouraged Matumusi to attend the first-ever Maternity Open Day held in his village, Vikunga. Even though his wife was working and unable to attend, he traveled to the local health clinic to better understand the services it offers. There, community health volunteers dressed in blue vests sang songs and acted out educational skits. Each part of the presentation was designed to impart key health messages, including why expectant mothers should sleep under mosquito nets to prevent malaria infection, deliver their babies at the health facility instead of at home, and initiate breastfeeding within an hour of birth.
At a subsequent Q&A session, community members asked professionally trained health workers questions ranging from how to best communicate with an emotionally distant, pregnant spouse (write a note), to whether health services are free of charge at Vikunga clinic (they are). Finally, Matumusi and other attendees from the community toured the clinic’s maternity ward. Nurse Joyce Imbahala Makanji showed off the modern equipment and reiterated that all services are free, from ambulance rides to postpartum pads. She also assured expectant mothers that the clinic would not discard their placentas – an example of the type of misinformation that had kept women away in the past, since tradition dictates that families bury the placenta on their homestead.
The Maternity Open Day left Nurse Makanji with a feeling of optimism. She pointed out that while the clinic is on-target in terms of the quality of care provided to women, it had not been reaching its goals in terms of the number of women served. After Maternity Open Day, however, she expects that to change. “We now expect more mothers to come to the facility,” she says. “We expect more deliveries of healthy babies.”
Hezron Matumusi also believes the experience will bring positive change to his community. “When you know something, it’s easier for you to make a decision,” he says.” “Many women had put their faith in traditional birth attendants, but now their eyes have been opened.”
Maternity Open Days are organized by the Systems Enhancement for Transformative Health (SETH) project, implemented by Action Against Hunger and Helen Keller International with the financial support of Global Affairs Canada. This project focuses on maternal, newborn and child health and nutrition.
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