Putting women at the centre of community health programmes

Published: 15 March 2012 10:30 CET

Afghanistan is one of the world’s least developed countries. According to the World Health Organization, 70 per cent of the population ‘lives in extreme poverty and health vulnerability’ and maternal mortality is the highest in the world.

With the help of over 25,000 volunteers, the Afghan Red Crescent Society is helping to change this, bringing first aid, health promotion and health education into communities across the country. In order to address the unique challenges of maternal, child and newborn health in remote regions of this country, the society had to design a new approach to community health that recognized local and cultural values.

As a result they chose to put women at the centre of the planning process and its programme design. The programme began with the recruitment and training of two female master trainers at the National Society’s headquarters in Kabul. With the training finished, the two women – accompanied by a relative – travelled to remote regions of Afghanistan to meet with community leaders and discuss the benefits of putting women at the heart of their local health programmes. They would also help identify and recruit women who would go on to become health volunteers within the community. Through this process, the Afghan Red Crescent recruited and trained women in remote villages through a culturally sensitive approach, with female facilitators leading the training.

One of the main challenges of training volunteers in these areas was illiteracy. In a country with illiteracy rates estimated at 50 per cent of men and 85 per cent of women, most of the female volunteers could not read or write. Red Crescent trainers developed innovative ways of teaching volunteers to ensure that they learned the key health messages accurately.

Communities are already benefiting from the work of female Red Crescent volunteers. They deliver key health messages to women living in villages, perform simple health interventions – such as diarrhoea treatment with oral rehydration solution – and refer women to health clinics for antenatal care, prenatal care and family planning.

In a country beset with a range of challenges including poor infrastructure, extreme poverty, high illiteracy and gender inequalities, the Afghan Red Crescent is working to empower women at the local level which will encourage health-seeking behaviour and reduce maternal mortality.