Healthy Babies and Mothers in the DRC

Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS

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When Gisele Biringanine discovered she was pregnant, she panicked. It was her third pregnancy—but her first two ended in miscarriage.

Gisele's home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, making pregnant women one of the country's most vulnerable groups.

Gisele Biringanine and her daughter, Plameti Mugoli, are receiving support from community health workers trained by CRS' Afya Mama project. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS
Gisele Biringanine and her daughter, Plameti Mugoli, are receiving support from community health workers trained by CRS' Afya Mama project. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS
But this pregnancy was different. With support from Catholic Relief Services, Gisele had free access to prenatal consultation services, regular support from community health volunteers and was assisted in childbirth at the health clinic in her community.

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, CRS' Afya Ya Mama Na Mtoto project , or "Healthy Mothers and Children" in Swahili, is helping women like Gisele have healthy pregnancies.

Reaching the community door-by-door

"I had fear at first, when I heard I was pregnant," says Gisele.

Money was a concern. Her husband's $50 a month teacher's salary was hardly enough to make ends meet.

She knew that community health volunteers in Walungu discourage women from giving birth in their homes. But with limited financial resources, Gisele, like many women in her community, thought she had no choice.

"I heard of Afya Mama through community workers. They told us that going to the health center is free," says Gisele, who had four prenatal appointments. She was also prescribed medication to prevent malaria and prenatal vitamins to ensure a healthy pregnancy.

Wilfred Bashengezi, a community health volunteer, says it was hard to convince the community to take advantage of the health center's services. "At first, women wouldn't visit us at the clinic, so we went door-to-door," she says.

Thanks to their grassroots efforts, Wilfred has seen significant changes. "Now anyone with signs of pregnancy comes to the health center," she says. "And after delivery, we visit the family, share a schedule for vaccinations and check on the baby's weight."

Gisele agrees. "Women used to deliver at home, and now we know to go to the health center before delivery."

Equipping and training health care workers

Pascasie Cishugi, head of the maternity ward at Walungu Referral Hospital, received training on quality delivery and neonatal care practices from the Afya project. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS
Pascasie Cishugi, head of the maternity ward at Walungu Referral Hospital, received training on quality delivery and neonatal care practices from the Afya project. Photo by Michael Stulman/CRS
Community engagement is key to getting women to the health centers. And when they get there, they find a clinic with good basic medical equipment and trained health care workers.

Pascasie Cishugi, a nurse in charge of labor and delivery, has been working at a nearby referral hospital for more than 25 years. As part of the CRS program, she took classes on neonatal practices.

"The training brought me up to date and gave me a new understanding of modern techniques in the delivery room and postnatal care," she says. "I benefited from sharing ideas with other health workers within the training program."

One of the most important trainings is kangaroo mother care, which teaches mothers of premature babies to hold their newborns close, skin-to-skin. This is critical in health facilities that don't have incubators to keep babies warm.

High survival rate

Among the premature babies born in areas where CRS is implementing Afya Mama, 94% have survived.

"The cases of death is reduced, thanks to the training," says Pascasie. To date, the Afya Mama program has helped more than 26,500 women deliver healthy babies.

Gisele was one of them. In March 2015, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, weighing 7.5 pounds.

"CRS brought Afya Mama here and it's a good thing," she says. "I delivered properly because of Afya Mama."

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