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Editor’s Note: This article was written before the pandemic. Since then, we have implemented COVID-19 prevention measures. These include social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings.

Lynah Nasike Waliaula heard about the mother to mother support group while pregnant with her fourth child. She had been experiencing abdominal pains that she had not had during her other pregnancies, and she did not know what to do.

So she attended that month’s meeting, along with other young and expectant mothers from her small village of Lukose in Western Kenya. They sat on benches and chairs arranged in a circle on a sunny patch of lawn. Some of them nursed babies. Others kept an eye on small children playing in the grass. Adelaide Alaka Lumula, the community health worker who facilitates the group, started the session as she always does. She led a short interactive lesson on maternal and pediatric health. Then she opened the floor to questions and comments.

A woman leads a support group for mothers in Western Kenya
Adelaide Alaka Lumula moderates a mother to mother support group. She offers crucial health information in the village of Lukose.

When it was her time to speak, Lynah described her situation to the women. Adelaide advised Lynah – and any other pregnant woman experiencing unusual discomfort – to go to a health facility for a consultation. Lynah did just that. At the clinic, she received reassurance that her pregnancy was not in danger, and medicine to reduce the severity of the pain. A few months later, she gave birth to a healthy boy. In the meantime, she kept going to meetings.

A safe space to discuss anything

“The group has helped me. The mothers are very open with each other about whatever issues they are having,” said Lynah. It’s a safe space to bring up subjects that women might feel uncomfortable discussing elsewhere.

Mothers attending a meeting
Lynah Nasike Waliaula attends a mother to mother support group with her youngest child.

Helen Keller Intl, in partnership with Action Against Hunger (ACF) and the Kenya Ministry of Health, launched mother to mother support groups in October of 2018. The groups provide women like Lynah with an opportunity to learn, share their concerns, and get help with raising their children. Childbirth, breastfeeding, and parenting classes and resources are not widely available or accessible in Kenya. Venues like the support group fill a knowledge gap. They also help to dispel taboos and misinformation.

The context in Kakamega

Before the program started, less than half of pregnant women in the region attended the four antenatal care visits that are recommended during pregnancy. Almost one out of two women delivered their babies at home without support from skilled practitioners. There was also a low rate of “optimal” breastfeeding. (Ideally, women breastfeed their infants as soon as possible after birth — and exclusively for the first six months of life. Then, optimally, mothers continue to breastfeed while introducing complementary foods for the next year and a half.)

In Lukose — as in other communities in Kakamega County — these trends stem partially from ignorance of the risks associated with foregoing pre-natal care, skilled delivery, and breastfeeding. They also come, in part, from cultural preferences and traditions. For example, many communities praise women who give birth at home. In some communities, people believe that breastfeeding should be delayed until breastmilk is cleansed by religious leaders or herbs. And in others, there is a taboo against mothers breastfeeding for a certain amount of time after their breasts are touched by a man.

Mothers breastfeeding
Women listen intently during a mother to mother support group meeting. Here, they learn about “optimal” breastfeeding.

Seeing changes in the community

Little by little, mothers are changing their practices. They are learning from the community health workers and getting support from other mothers. Adelaide has noticed a marked difference in the months since the program began. “The mothers in this community never used to breastfeed their children. Most of them never used to go to clinics or deliver [their babies] in health facilities,” she said. “From the mother to mother support groups, they get information. They are taught. And they have learned that it’s very important to deliver in the facility and to go for antenatal care.” As a result, she said, “We don’t have as many children coming to the health facilities with health issues now. The mothers have seen the changes, so the community is supportive and everyone is happy with the initiative.”

Lynah’s involvement grows

Indeed, Lynah turned to the group for advice a second time when she had trouble breastfeeding her youngest son. Because the infant was latching improperly, Lynah developed cracked nipples that made it painful to breastfeed. Adelaide coached Lynah on how to help the baby properly latch, and she again recommended going to the health facility. There, Lynah got medicine to treat the sores on her breasts. She was then able to return to breastfeeding normally.

Two mothers breastfeeding their babies
Lynah Nasike Waliaula and another mother breastfeed their children while attending the support group meeting.

Recently, Lynah was nominated to be the group’s lead mother. As such, she would be responsible for letting women know about meetings and encouraging them to attend. She was happy to take on the task, as she has seen the benefits of the group firsthand. “My children are very healthy, and I’m really happy about that.”

Meet Lynah, Adelaide, and other members of the women to women group. [This video was filmed before the pandemic]:

Mother to mother support groups are just one facet of the Systems Enhancement for Transformative Health (SETH) project. SETH is implemented by Action Against Hunger and Helen Keller Intl with the financial support of Global Affairs Canada. The project focuses on improving maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition in five counties in Western Kenya. Read about another SETH initiative here.

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