New Al Jazeera Documentary: Saving Lives Through Community Involvement

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By: Katie Millar, Technical Writer, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

High rates of maternal and newborn deaths affect many countries around the world. Malawi, which currently has the 24th highest maternal mortality ratio (MMR), is taking innovative approaches to save mothers and newborns. In order to protect women and newborns, the Presidential Safe Motherhood initiative was rolled out in 2012. Through this program, community involvement and mobilization is changing the way maternal health is delivered in Malawi. Al Jazeera recognized the important implications of this initiative and the positive effect it could have on other impoverished countries around the world. In order to highlight the problem of maternal mortality and innovative steps to solve it, Al Jazeera produced the documentary, “Between Life and Death.”

The documentary highlights the current strategy for preventing maternal and newborn death in Malawi, which is get the woman to a facility. Through this initiative, rural communities in Malawi are now challenging traditional methods of birthing at home to effectively save lives of mothers and their babies. Women’s groups, NGOs, and community elders have been mobilized and now encourage women to deliver at facilities. This mobilization, which dispels traditional home birthing practices, has been successful in getting women to the care they need. With an increased awareness of the importance of safe birthing practices, villagers even escort some pregnant women on boats or cars to a health center. With transportation as a large barrier to accessing care, this innovation has allowed many women to reach the health center who would not have been able to before.

Engaging traditional leaders, or tribal chiefs, has been a powerful way to create change. The tribal chiefs now meet with women’s groups and men to encourage women to give birth in facilities. One community member said, “Traditional chiefs are the gatekeepers in our society. They get respect and everyone listens to them. Their involvement in safe birthing means people listen and follow their advice”

The work that has been done in Malawi is an example for other countries and communities on how dispel harmful traditional birthing practices. We have learned that people and communities can change their behavior and in turn save lives—even if it means breaking old birthing traditions and creating new birthing practices—when local leaders encourage them.

When asked why Al Jazeera had an interest in maternal health, Director Clifford Bestall said, “By saving the lives of mothers and their babies, we save the future… Malawi was near the bottom in global ratings with extremely high maternal and neonatal deaths. Now the country has turned a corner by challenging traditional birthing methods and ensuring that skilled medical staff assist mothers to deliver.”

Engaging traditional leaders is key for addressing harmful practices, empowering a community, and saving lives. If you’d like to learn more about the work being done in Malawi, the Al Jazeera article, “Challenging traditions to save lives” has more details.