By Thomas Bwire
“Some parents keep their newborn babies off any public interaction owing to their religious affiliation. This means that once the baby is born, they are not allowed to be taken to any healthcare facility until 40 days lapses. This is not right at all”.
Mama Bentado Omiya as popularly known as one of the very active community health workers who are passionate about her work with the underprivileged in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. With more than six years of experience, her work is purely centered in Gatwekera village.
“In the course of my work, I once discovered some parents keep their newborn babies off any public interaction owing to their religious affiliation. This means that once the baby is born, they are not allowed to be taken to any healthcare facility until 40 days lapses. This is not right at all.’ says Omiya in her opening remarks during our interview.
Omiya, who works with Carolina for Kibera remembers how one time, she successfully convinced this one family whose religion prohibits any public contact of any newly born child for a period of 40 days to rethink their stance.
Most of the time, religious beliefs like these means the baby misses important immunization that will prevent them from getting diseases such as Tuberculosis, Polio and Hepatitis B. This particular baby was delivered on the way to the hospital and thereafter locked indoors as prescribed by the family’s religious beliefs.
“The parents had earlier and consistently insisted they would not allow their child to be taken out of the house and interact with any other person outside their family circles,” said Omiya.
Her courage to go against such beliefs and constant push and persisted until the parents gave in, the baby was finally taken to the clinic to get the first important immunizations after a period of three weeks.
The phase after birth in some communities is often followed by cultural practices. Such as keeping the child in isolation during the first month after the birth. Awareness of such practices and beliefs is critical to ensuring effective and timely care. Should the mother and child fall ill in this period of isolation, care-seeking is mostly delayed putting the life of sick infants and lactating mothers in danger which oftentimes leads to death. This period of isolation often times result in the three major which lead to complications; delay at home, delay in reaching appropriate care, and delay in receiving the care.
Omiya shares this experience that has given her more energy to keep soldiering on in her duty. Sometimes, she is forced to make hard-line stands in certain circumstances involving any child who is below six months.
From this experience, the Women’s Care Group initiative driven by women has turned out to be a force to reckon with in the Kibera community. Working in pairs and with the aim of offering preventive care practices and routine assessments to identify and manage or refer complications for both mother and baby they conduct home visits in a selected household with newly born babies and homes that have expectant mothers.
Their work is eased by the fact that they live in the community they serve and have rich social networks that help in scaling up of vital health-related information.
Notwithstanding the Kibera terrain that sometimes is muddy with uneven trenches; theirs is to make strides in reaching out to their clients through door to door campaigns and have a candid chat, check on the children’s health, and give support to both breastfeeding mothers and expectant mothers. This familiarity makes them trusted advisors to their friends and neighbors.
The group that started with 80 women now comprises of 1000 in total, whose main task is to identify expectant mothers from Kibera and start engaging them in discussions regarding maternal and child health. The initiative, one of its kind is being run through a local based non-governmental organization, Carolina for Kibera.
Their diary is a checklist of four different villages in Kibera that were mapped in the first phase of this program. The villages include Gatwekera, Soweto, Kianda and now Silanga.
Hellen Atieno Omondi is a 30-year-old devoted mother of five. She is a true beneficiary of the women-led support group. she grew up in an environment influenced by neighbors who only believed that newborn babies are meant to be breastfed for a maximum of one to two months, a practice she embraced among her first three children.
“My firstborn child only breastfed for one month, my second and third did two months before I introduced them to other solid foods such as porridge and mashed bananas,” says Hellen.
As a result, she made several visits to local health facilities because her babies used to get sick frequently. Sometimes she would fear the wrath of angry nurses and opted not to visit any health clinic when any of the children fell sick but preferred over the counter medication bought from local chemists in Kibera.
Now speaking with a smile on her face, while carrying her last born baby who has been breastfeeding for the last six minutes during our one on one chat, she chuckles and takes a pause;
“Sincerely at that time I did not embrace any six months of breastfeeding, I didn’t know why it was important, and how the early years of my children’s growth would be affected.”
According to the School of Data mothers who breastfeed their children beyond age one are more likely to give them nutritious food compared to mothers who stop breastfeeding earlier. The report also states that children whose mothers have no education are more likely to be underweight compared to those whose mothers have secondary education.
Care group comprises of 15 women who are living as neighbors within a given area, also known as ‘neighbor women.’ It targets expectant and breastfeeding mothers, who are taught about the importance of going to a health facility during their pregnancy and the importance of children receiving all required vaccinations.
Sessions are held weekly at one of the care group volunteer lead member’s house bringing together a total of 15 ‘neigbour women.’ Meeting times are held between 2 pm to 3 pm so as to also give women room to carry out other domestic chores.
Their work entails carrying a tracking form that records each mother’s progress in the program. The tracking record also captures weekly topical issues addressed during meetings. Women benefit from vital health information on areas such as how to take care of the baby’s umbilical cord after birth, handwashing, exclusive breastfeeding, antenatal care, maternal health, newborn care, family planning HIV/AIDS among other vital topics.
All total sessions conducted before a childbirth are 21 in total and this will continue extensively until the baby reaches two years.
In the recent past, Kibera has seen breastfeeding practice gradually go up from the six months period as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to a period of two years, thanks to a community-based approach steered by a women-led support group.
Mark Muasa, the officer in charge of the Health Program at Carolina for Kibera, says that this initiative was necessary as a result of their own findings, which shows a low-uptake of breastfeeding for children aged six months and below.
“Most parents are low-income earners and their focus is going out to work in order to put food on the table., this leads to neglecting a major role of breast milk, thus putting the lives of their babies at risk” he says.
The program, however, has taken a U-turn and has helped transform feeding patterns. Mothers are now keen on the health of their babies. Most breastfeeding mothers in the program attest that their babies immunity has gradually strengthened due to heeding the advice of the women-led initiative. An effective community-based approach can mitigate this while alleviating pressure on higher level health facilities.
With proper support, The Women’s Care Group initiative will help promote a healthy society that will reduce costs of visiting health facilities and in return to a new generation receiving proper attention in upscaling their early years of development.