Radio – and maternal health

Technology used for a community radio broadcast in rural Uganda. 

Monday, February 13, 2017 is World Radio Day. In honour of the day, Save the Mothers Interns Fortunate Kagumaho and Jess Huston put together the following report.

Uganda is among the fastest developing countries in the east African region with a population of 39-million. Yet, the maternal mortality rates are still among the highest in the world, with about 6000 mothers and 40,000 newborns dying every year!

On this World Radio Day, members of the Save the Mothers team here in Uganda carried out a simple survey examining the role of radios in fighting this challenge.

The survey

Fifty random women at hospitals were interviewed; 25 new mothers and 25 expecting mothers from Kawolo Hospital and Mukono Health Center IV.

We asked if they had heard any program on any of radio station to do with maternal health—Uganda has over 100 radio stations broadcasting in over 12 different languages!

At least 80 percent of these radio stations have programming that aims at teaching or passing on communication related to safe motherhood.

Of the 50 women we interviewed—asking whether they had listened to a program and learned something from what they’d heard, 15 women confirmed they had listened to a campaign or talk, and of those, 10 had learned from the broadcast. Ten women didn’t own a radio to listen to, and 15 said they had no time to listen to radio programs.

The most listened to program was the government campaign advising men to go with women for antenatal [prenatal checkups] and deliveries. Hospitals report an increase in male attendance since the campaigns started running two years ago.

Thirty percent of the women interviewed had heard a radio broadcast on safe motherhood. Through Save the Mothers Masters of Public Health Leadership program, we have seen other ways that this method of communication has been incredibly effective. For example, Susan Olwa, (who is featured in the book The Game Changers), says that in her district of Lira,  “the broadcasts have been very well received,” and that many calls and texts follow each of her broadcasts dealing with maternal health.

Radio for crisis management

According to Haruna Walama, the Hospital Administrator at Kawolo Hospital (and a Save the Mothers Master of Public Health Leadership grad), radio broadcasts often assist in crisis management and in addressing negative news against hospitals.

“Radio [commentators] are mostly negative, and say hospitals don’t care about the patients. And yet we always do our best!” says Haruna, “When the community brings a patient they expect them to heal and not die. They look at us as genies.” He explains that unrealistic expectations can be difficult to manage since people may not have a complete or true understanding of the importance of seeking timely medical attention, and also of the extent of what hospitals and health workers are able to do. “Because people believe everything said on radio, should the mother die at the hospital, even when the death was caused by a delay in getting to hospital, the community will rush to blame the hospital.” Such myths and misunderstandings can further perpetuate delays towards safe motherhood, if people fear medical centers.

Haruna also notes, however, that radios and their programming have been key in passing on information to the community, especially in areas where there is higher illiteracy rates and lower understanding of the issues surrounding safe motherhood. Many communities are innovative in their methods of conveying important information through this broadcast medium.

African ingenuity

Communities that cannot afford FM radios have resorted to buying big speakers, referred to as kazindalo and mounting them on tall poles in the central trading centers. Information is then communicated by the person with the microphone connected to this speaker.

These public radios don’t operate with a license and they normally work during rush hour. Early morning, midday and then around 8:00 p.m., allowing messages to be heard by a great number of people.

The maternal mortality rates in Uganda remain alarmingly high. At Save the Mothers, we believe that the maternal health challenge is like a huge elephant in the room; not talked about enough, and to be solved only with a collective effort.

Given the influence and reach of radio, it is a tool that can only continue to help address the gaps and challenges in maternal health, faced by Uganda.


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