It is no longer news to hear issues of shortage of drugs in the country’s hospitals, neither is it surprising to learn that patients are sleeping on the bare floor.
But much as everyone agrees that public hospitals have hit rock bottom, it is disturbing to learn that guardians for pregnant women at some health centres—especially in Lilongwe—are being asked to help out in labour wards whenever their wards are giving birth.
This, apparently, is as a result of accusations some communities have levelled against medical personnel at the health centres that they take linen used during labour and umbilical cords for making charms. As a reaction to this, the health officers have resolved to invite guardians into labour wards to “help” with the deliveries.
This has not gone well with certain sections of the society, including women who have been subjected to such practices.
Nellie Mandolo, a 27-year-old mother of two from Kawale in Lilongwe, had such an experience and says she felt sickened with the ordeal such that she has lost all appetite for meat or fish products.
“Last week we took my neighbour to the hospital because she was due. When we got there, I was asked to go into the labour ward where the nurses told me to help my neighbour push the baby,” said Mandolo.
She narrated that her neighbour lost a lot of blood which she was asked to clean up.
“Later I was told to wash the linen used during the delivery and when I asked why they were treating me that way, they said it was because people had been accusing them of using linen and umbilical cords for witchcraft, hence they resolved to let guardians witness and take part in the actual process of delivering babies. As I speak, my appetite for meat and fish has gone and I feel so disgusted,” she narrated.
Ministry of Health spokesperson, Adrian Chikumbe, however, says their official position is that nobody, except trained midwife-nurses or clinicians, is allowed to help in matters directly related to child birth in a labour ward.
“This includes even washing linen, cleaning delivery areas or any technical work related to child birth. We regard guardians as unskilled workers who should not be involved in this type of work and it’s unfortunate if this is happening because that’s unprofessional,” he says.
Health rights activist Dorothy Ngoma condemns the practice and says it should be stopped forthwith.
“Government cannot allow guardians to do technical work regarding child birth. It’s the duty of nurses or midwives to take care of a woman during prenatal, delivery process or postnatal. It’s understandable for guardians to be present in hospitals to give moral support or prepare food for women in labour,” says Ngoma.
She cited the case of Bwaila Hospital—which conducts over 80 deliveries a day against five midwives—as one of the cases where guardians help out with non-technical work.
“Let guardians play their role of providing moral support in terms of preparing food and others but not to be present in labour wards cleaning or washing materials used during delivery,” says Ngoma.
However, she adds that government is to blame for the mishaps in delivery rooms.
“If you look at it closely, you will notice that this is perhaps due to shortage of health personnel and blame should squarely be laid on government for having its priorities upside down. Government is not using our taxes to recruit enough health workers or buying enough essential equipment to be used in hospitals,” she says.
Timothy Bonyonga, community mobilisation coordinator for the Safe Motherhood Project, describes the situation as unfortunate.
“Ideally, the most important person to accompany a woman to the hospital when she goes for labour is her husband. But female guardians are allowed because men often shun this responsibility. But even if it is a female guardian, it is unacceptable to let her help with the actual delivery of the baby,” he says.
Bonyonga nonetheless emphasizes that men need to accompany their wives to hospitals during such times because it tends to take the pressure off the woman.
“The mere presence of a husband during that time is morally boosting to the woman and when she realises that her husband is in the vicinity usually the process takes place smoothly,” Bonyonga maintains.n