When it comes to health promotion and disease prevention, developing countries face a challenging situation. Given the high level of illiteracy of their populations, the lack of infrastructure and trained manpower, interventions of all kind are hard to deliver. Even in countries where the majority of the population lives in rural areas, the available health resources are usually concentrated in the cities. Most developing countries also have difficulties with transport and communication, especially in rural and remote areas.
Many rural people are therefore caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and poor health: Poor health increases poverty by reducing people’s economic productivity whilst poverty contributes to their poor health. To break this cycle, cost-effective, easy-to-scale solutions for health promotion are crucial.
Experience has shown that women’s group formation has a great potential to empower and to generate income (for example microcredit or savings groups). It was therefore a natural progression to also use women’s groups for delivery of health care interventions in community-based projects over the last decade. A scientific review published in the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal in 2011 proved that they are a convenient, workable and sustainable option for this task. The topics covered in group meetings included for example family planning, malaria prevention, breastfeeding, prenatal care or child care.
It turned out that the groups respond best to a participatory approach during which group members are first given some health-related input and then encouraged to actively share knowledge and to work together. A key ingredient certainly is the ability of women to understand and communicate with other women of the same community on an equal footing and in a culturally relevant way. Projects that follow only a top-down approach do not create the same atmosphere of mutual trust and respect and are therefore less successful.
Scientific surveys have found that women’s group members reported a variety of improvements not only in their own lives, but also a positive ripple effect into their families and communities. The most important benefits mentioned reflect multiple levels and domains of empowerment:
- on an functional level: knowledge enhancement, skills development and financial support
- on an organizational level: community participation, ownership and cohesion
- on an psychological level: emotional support, reduction in tension and guilt, validation of care-giving experiences and development of self-confidence
In a nutshell: Women’s groups have a great impact not only on individuals, but also families and communities. Using them as a multiplying factor for health promotion is a powerful, cost-effective and sustainable way to tackle the scarcity of resources, poorly functioning health systems and widespread poverty in developing countries. This is why we have been working with women’s groups ever since the beginning of our project: Our solar-powered Audiopedia players containing our contents were conceived for group listening and are distributed by our local NGO partners to small groups of 10 - 12 women. The players contain more than 400 relevant questions and answers about health, nutrition, family planning, child care and other health promotion and disease prevention in the local language. This equals 12 hours of spoken text. Used in women’s groups our players foster discussion, exchange and (self-help) group building in an authentic bottom-up approach, just like recommended by the study’s authors.