Women’s Groups – scaling up to save more mothers’ and babies lives

Esther Sharma, Midwife and Trustee, talks about how the success of Women and Children First’s women’s groups approach has resulted in passing on the expertise so that other organisations can deliver this life-saving method of saving lives.

As an expectant mum, with an excited toddler eagerly awaiting the arrival of his new baby, I am more mindful than ever before of the fortunate position I am in, living in the UK with access to great healthcare and lots of support.  However, as many of us are acutely aware, with the MDG’s well and truly behind us now, there is still a huge amount of work to be done to ensure that this is the experience of all women and their babies across the world.

How many women have the choice about when to start having children, how many children to have and how far apart to space them?  Or access to antenatal care and a skilled birth attendant to ensure a safe birth?  And what about healthcare facilities for those requiring medical assistance?  And vital support in the early days of motherhood?

Since 2002, Women and Children First[1] have been working in some of the poorest countries of the world to empower women, using Women’s Groups – a powerful, low cost, participatory community mobilisation approach.  Rather than being a ‘top down’ approach, Women’s Groups seek to empower women to find long lasting approaches to their individual communities’ maternal and newborn health issues.  The women identify local strategies to address these problems, take action on the local strategies and evaluate their impact. Throughout the life cycle of the groups, based on their interests, women prioritize and discuss different topics on infant and maternal health. In order to capture the interest of the group and communicate effectively, storytelling, role plays, the use of picture cards and song and dance are often used.

Such is the effectiveness of this approach, (studies of seven communities show that you can cut deaths among newborns by one third using this low cost method[2]), it has been formally recognized by the World Health Organization[3] as being an important component in designing global maternal and child health programmes.

And now Women and Children First are scaling up this vital approach by providing advice and training to other organisations across the globe (including those in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Honduras and Myanmar), passing on the deep knowledge and expertise that they have gained about Women’s Groups over the years to ensure that more women than ever before have the opportunity to shape the future of maternal and newborn health in their communities.

Mikey Rosato (Director of Programmes and Technical Assistance) says, “It’s a privilege to be able to pass on Women and Children First’s expertise in delivering Women’s Groups. Our aim is to save as many mothers and babies lives as possible and what better way to do this than by sharing an approach that is proven to work. It is so exciting to see the enthusiasm from our partners in the field who will be on the frontline in saving lives and helping us to reach the goal of an equitable world where all women and children have good health, no matter where they live.”

This training has been very well received.  Mikey has recently returned from the World Health Organization where he was passing on expertise in how to run Women’s Groups, which he says, “was an important step towards our goal of good health for all women, adolescents and children.  With the support of the trainees from WHO, UNAIDS and World Vision we can now work in partnership to bring the women’s group approach to more communities where the greatest inequalities exist in health and mortality.”

Women’s Groups are by very nature designed to replicate themselves across communities to reach more and more women.  Now that Women and Children First are providing training to other organisations, Women’s Groups will not only spread across communities, but across the world, bringing about much needed change to maternal and newborn health.

Please donate so that we can continue this life-saving work. http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.org.uk/index.php/donate

[1] http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.org.uk/

[2] http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.org.uk/what-we-do/evidence-base

[3] http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/documents/community-mobilization-maternal-newborn/en/

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Empowering communities to improve maternal and newborn health

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you already know that thousands of women and babies die every year, due to complications in pregnancy, labour or birth.  You probably also know that most of these women and babies are living in poor countries.  But I wonder if you’re now imagining defenceless, helpless women who are subject to the terrible circumstances in which they find themselves?  All too often, and not without good reason, that’s the image that can come to mind when we think about mothers and babies dying in poor countries.

But think again! 

For over a decade, Women and Children First has been working to improve maternal and newborn health by empowering women and their communities to find their own solutions to their maternal and newborn health  problems.  

Empower [ɪmˈpaʊə]  Make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights

Using a model of participatory approach over a 2-year period, groups of poor, often illiterate women living in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, identify and prioritise maternal and newborn health problems in their community, identify local strategies to address these problems, take action on the local strategies and finally evaluate their impact.  Throughout the life cycle of the groups, women discuss different topics on infant and maternal health which are of interest to them.  In order to capture the interest of the group and communicate effectively, storytelling, role plays, the use of picture cards and song and dance are often used.  The great strength of using this model is that women, often for the first time, have their opinions heard and are given a voice.

Through women identifying solutions to the challenges faced in their own communities, the women’s  groups have been able to develop long-lasting and low-cost solutions demonstrating the ability of a community  to address their maternal and newborn health issues when they are empowered to do so.   Such solutions include bicycle ambulances to take women in labour to the nearest healthcare facility,  village savings and loan schemes to help women pay when medical intervention is required and video shows to raise awareness of maternal and newborn health issues. 

This approach has been proven to be so successful that the World Health Organisation has formally recommended it as a human rights-based intervention to improve maternal and newborn health.

Shapla, a woman who attend a women’s group in Bangladesh says,

“If you give a person food, it will be finished in one day. But information is more important than food. It helps us look after ourselves and our family better.”

More information about the women’s groups can be found here:

http://www.womenandchildrenfirst.org.uk/what-we-do/international-programme-strategies/community-mobilisation