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Gambian Women Take Up Fight Against Malaria

By Lara Puglielli

Their refrain is simple: "Malaria is a dangerous disease. Let's stop it before it reaches us."

Sutura member with bed net

A member of the Sutura women's group displays a bed net her group helped provide with a loan from its savings fund. Photo by Lara Puglielli/CRS

But when the drumbeat starts up—nothing more than an empty oil jug beaten with a stick—accompanied by the strong, repetitive chanting of women's voices, your body can't resist giving in to the rhythm. The cadence of the drum helps the words of the chorus take permanent hold in your memory.

"Malaria is a dangerous disease. Let's stop it before it reaches us."

The Sutura (Privacy) women's group began in The Gambia as a traditional savings and self-help group, or osusu, formed by 18 members in 2002. The group met regularly, with each member placing 10 dalasis (about 40 cents) into the group's common fund. Loans were made available on a rotating basis to each of the group's members. The money would be used for investing in household repairs, small business activities, or to pay for school fees or for medicine if a household member fell sick.

Health Promotion and Development

In 2006, Catholic Relief Services' local partner, the Health Promotion and Development Organization, organized a field day to discuss malaria in Sutura's community, near Gambia's capital city of Banjul. One of the group's members had recently died from malaria; she had been pregnant at the time and the baby also died. And so the women of Sutura approached the Health Promotion and Development Organization to become involved in community-based malaria prevention and control. Their work was part of a CRS project financed by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. By that time, Sutura had grown to 100 members and had 20,000 dalasis ($800) in their common fund.

Once the group received the malaria training—how it's spread, how to recognize symptoms, how malaria can be prevented as well as treated—one of the first commitments the group made was to use its own money to ensure that every Sutura member possessed a bed net treated with insecticide. Since the Global Fund project prioritized pregnant women and children under 5 years of age to receive free bed nets, not everyone qualified. But Sutura decided that in order to be effective agents of behavior change in their community, they first had to become models of bed net use themselves.

Tireless Yet Joyful Dedication

Over the past three years, Sutura women's group has continued its volunteer activities—assisting with the distribution of bed nets, making regular house visits to community members to make sure those who received nets use them, identifying those who qualify for a Global Fund net and even helping those who do not qualify figure out how to acquire one by other means. They have also developed short dramas that they perform to spread the word about the need for malaria prevention.

They are motivated to continue because they're helped along with the community: They have seen cases of malaria decline significantly in their own community and have started to expand their outreach. Today they have asked for help to procure wheelbarrows and rakes so that they can fill in the huge puddles brought by the rainy season, and so eliminate prime mosquito breeding grounds.

Their work is not insignificant. Statistically, each person in The Gambia experiences at least two episodes of malaria each year, so when a Sutura member tells us that her 4-year-old child has never had malaria, this is a success story to be celebrated. According to The Gambia's Ministry of Health, the incidence of malaria in this urban coastal region is on the rise. To see this community buck the trend suggests that the women of Sutura—their tireless yet joyful dedication and organizational capacity—are a key ingredient to this success.

Lara Puglielli was a CRS senior technical advisor based in Baltimore.

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