DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
WALKING into Kafue District Hospital for antenatal care while holding hands with her husband is not a new trend for Precious Chunga, 29, a mother of one.
For Mrs Chunga of Kafue’s C7 section, the first time her husband accompanied her for the routine maternal care was during her first pregnancy three years ago.
At that time, the couple’s action shocked many people.
“The neighbours called me names and accused me of indoctrinating my husband all because whenever it was time for antenatal checkups, he would prefer we first go to the clinic before he goes for work,” Mrs Chunga says.
She says going for routine medical checkups has helped her sail through pregnancy and even after giving birth.
“I believe a pregnancy is not the responsibility of a wife or woman alone, it is for both whether married or not,” she says.
Mrs Chunga adds, “There are times when the medical staff gives instructions or any explanation regarding the pregnancy and when you have a husband or partner accompanying you, it becomes easier in case he has questions regarding anything.”
The role of husbands in maternal health is often overlooked by society and families in many communities in Zambia.
“I have learnt that support from our husbands or indeed male partners has long lasting benefits for both the developing child and the expectant mother,” Mrs Chunga says.
She recalls that during her first pregnancy, she would feel ashamed of going for the routine checkups with her husband but with time, she got used such that whatever people in her community said did not matter to her.
“It looks like it is against the norm but my husband and I have vowed to defy it. I want to be the change to this trend, we need men present at all stages in the process of women giving a life,” Mrs Chunga says.
But do men have an important role in maternal and newborn health care both as partners and parents?
Mr Chunga feels in today’s society, it is easy to forget that there are some major differences between the genders.
“While your pregnant wife spends nine months growing a baby inside of her, you will be left to watch from the outside.,” Mr Kuteng’a Chunga says.
Mr Chunga says from experience, he has leant that being pregnant is tough.
“I want her to be as happy and comfortable as possible, and I always did whatever I could to help Precious,” Mr Chunga says.
The pregnancy process for many men is a little bewildering. Not knowing what to do, they end up nervously backing away instead of stepping up the support when their women need them the most.
But for Mr Chunga, it was time to learn more about the baby and the expectant mother.
As heads of the family, men mostly control resources and serve as the final authority on several happenings in homes.
Surprisingly, beyond that, many men seem to have no expectation of any further role during antenatal care and therefore find it unnecessary to attend clinics with their partners.
In patriarchal settings, the role of men can be complex and social and cultural traditions may conflict.
But medically, men’s role during antenatal care has several benefits both physically and mentally for both the expectant mother and the unborn child.
A community health assistant at Kafue District Hospital, Joseph Zulu says the trend is slowly changing.
“We now see at least two or three pregnant women come with their husbands or partners for the antenatal routine checkups. It was not so a few years ago,” Mr Zulu says.
In cases where men accompany their wives, the couples are given priority.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the involvement of men in maternal and newborn health as a priority.
It is one of eight “strong recommendations” on a list of 12 in its just-published WHO recommendations on health promotion interventions for maternal and newborn health.
It recommends further research into a family approach, looking also at other key family relationships around the mother and baby.
One of the recommendations reads: “Interventions to promote the involvement of men during pregnancy, childbirth and after birth are recommended to facilitate and support improved self-care of women, improved home care practices for women and newborns, improved use of skilled care during pregnancy, childbirth and the postnatal period for women and newborns, and increase the timely use of facility care for obstetric and newborn complications.”
And renowned gynecologist Swebby Macha says the role of husbands in maternity care is important for safe childbirth.
“Men should be present because their being around gives a pregnant woman emotional support and also helps in the development of the pregnancy,” Dr Macha says.
Dr Macha says a woman’s memory takes a dive during pregnancy and sometimes she may be nervous and excited, hence she might rely on her partner to remind her about what medication to take and what food to eat at what time.
In Zambia, pregnancy and childbirth has been women’s domain and maternal health care services have focused on women, with very little male involvement.
DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka