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Radio brings hope to Malawi’s mothers

16 Jun, 2010

A radio listening club in Mchinji, Malawi

A radio listening club in Mchinji, Malawi

In a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, a radio programme is using local knowledge to improve health. Cathryn Wood, Strategic Awards Officer at the Wellcome Trust, reports.

As I staggered out of a cramped minibus in Mchinji, a taxi driver convinced me that my guesthouse was two miles away before driving me to it – 100 metres away. Nonetheless, we parted good friends.

I was in Mchinji working with Mudzi Wathu Community Radio Station: training new staff and carrying out a review of one of their radio programmes. Mchinji hit the headlines when Madonna adopted a child from an orphanage in the district. It lies in Malawi’s Central Region and has a population of approximately 380 000 people.

Mchinji is also the home of a Trust-funded maternal and neonatal survival project called the MaiMwana Project, one component of a Strategic Award given to Professor Anthony Costello at UCL in 2008. The Project aims to reduce mother and child mortality and morbidity by mobilising communities to take control of mother and child health issues, through women’s groups.

When the women asked for more education about maternal health, the Project decided to work with the local community radio station to produce a programme that would help to educate the community.

The 30-minute programme, called Phukusi La Moyo, features voices of the local community and health experts. The name of the programme comes from a local traditional Chewa proverb: ‘Phukusi la moyo umasunga wekha’ (‘everyone should jealously protect their own bag of life’).

Listening clubs have been set up to give those without access to the airwaves at home the latest advice. The clubs don’t just listen, they discuss what they’ve learned from the programme and what action they need to take to make sure their pregnant women and infants stay healthy.

At one club in October, community members gathered around an old radio to listen to the programme. Broadcast in the local vernacular, Chichewa, the programme included interviews with community members, village chiefs and health workers. Contraception and child spacing was the topic of the day, followed by a song about family planning. The group leader, who’d been furiously taking notes, asked the group what they’d learned. One answer: “If you space out your children you’re more likely to be healthy enough to look after your children, your husband and your home.”

The women attending the clubs say the programme has cut the number of maternal and infant deaths in their villages. One of the listeners, Stella Mbwana, believes it is because they have learned it is better to give birth at a health facility rather than with a community birth attendant. “It has also helped to increase awareness of other problems: we have learned that if we get tested for HIV during pregnancy, we can take steps to stop our babies becoming infected.”

Staff at the District Hospital told me that they’re already seeing benefits: “Since the programme began, more pregnant women are coming to the clinic for HIV testing.” Before Phukusi La Moyo started broadcasting, many women refused to visit the clinic because they were afraid that they would be mistreated. Now, the members of the women’s groups encourage each other to go.

This success has been attributed to community participation in the programme. The women asked for the programme and are involved in its production, therefore they feel that it belongs to them and are an engaged and receptive audience, ready to learn and take steps to improve their own health.

Most importantly, the programme is very relevant to local needs: at 984 deaths per 100 000 live births, Malawi has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in the world.

Cathryn Wood

Cathryn was awarded a (non-Trust) Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to carry out research that explores the use of radio as an educational tool in Malawi.

Image credit: Cathryn Wood
One Comment leave one →
  1. 16 Jun, 2010 2:56 pm

    Cathryn, this is an exciting success story! We were thinking of developing a public engagement project around the community and partnering with one of the radio stations and I think your experience and ideas will be very helpful. I’ll be in touch!


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