“When I Started to Look Deeper” is a series of personal stories by Saskatchewan people. Each author shares a moment that inspired them to look beyond the symptoms of global issues – such as hunger, health, education, and conflict – in order to find the root causes and work for more sustainable solutions. A companion series to SCIC’s LookDeeper online resource and campaign.
I Saw Why Grassroots Partnerships are Needed for Global Health
by Erin MacAulay Davalos, Founder of Mamas 4 Mamas
1. Effectiveness requires a meaningful presence…
One of the first things I noticed after arriving in Caia, a rural village in Mozambique, was the lack of other visibly foreign people. I assumed the organization I was working with was the only one in town, but later learned there were other, much larger organizations that rarely left their project sites.
"I wondered, how could these organizations really understand the community if they made no effort to be a part of the everyday life? What message was their absence from the village market sending to the community?"
Some of the most impactful work I’ve been a part of came as a result of sitting casually with a group of women, laughing and chatting. Bonding with them about our shared experience as mothers and wives allowed us to open up and talk about the deeper issues related to women’s health and rights. These conversations guided me when starting Mamas 4 Mamas, ensuring that our work was rooted in relationships that we build with other grassroots women’s organizations already working within the community.
2. Building trust requires cultural respect and sensitivity…
While in Mozambique, some of the women we spoke to told us of an organization that was discouraging women from using traditional healers, asking them to exclusively see medical doctors. This approach was problematic given that for some women in this community, seeing an OBGYN during their pregnancy was a relatively new concept; the trust and belief in this type of medical care just wasn’t there like it was for their traditional healing practices. In telling women to abandon their beliefs entirely in favour of a western model of medicine, this organization showed a lack of respect and didn’t help to build the community’s trust.
I’ve learned that any efforts to improve the delivery of healthcare should be focused on cultivating trusting relationships, where there is respect and involvement of care afforded to the patients, their families, and their traditional healers. Building clinics and providing supplies is only one piece of the health puzzle. It’s also about getting to know the people in the community in order to have an appreciation and better understanding of their experiences, their beliefs and the stigmas that contribute to the way they access health care.
| L: Erin with Bia in Mozambique | C: Erin (right) volunteering as a doula in Honduras |
| R: Grace Komuhangi, recipient of Mamas 4 Mamas scholarship in Uganda (Master's of Nursing) |
3. Learning requires listening…
There is a staggering lack of access to suitable health care in many remote communities around the world. But through listening, I have also learned that infrastructure and poverty are not the only barriers to overcome. There is also a great need for education about family planning and human rights during childbirth.
When I was in Mozambique, my friend Bia was pregnant with her second child. I was looking forward to becoming a mother myself someday, and I used to ask her a lot of questions about what she expected her birth experience to be like. I was absolutely shocked when she told me that she was beaten by the nurses at the hospital during her labour with her first child because she made too much noise.
"That story stuck with me for a long time after, and I learned that her experience is all too common around the world."
I have seen women receive episiotomies* while begging the doctor not to cut them. I have seen doctors push on a woman’s stomach to speed delivery. I have heard doctors speak in a degrading manner to women in labour. Supporting maternal health in rural communities is more than building clinics and providing supplies, although I do believe that is an important piece. It is also about a woman’s right to informed consent for medical procedures and to be treated with dignity.
I believe that every community is full of talented and ambitious people and this belief forms the basis of how I approach all partnerships. Communities already know what they need, and if you are willing to respectfully listen with an open mind, they will educate you on their situation. I know I can’t solve all of the health care issues women like Bia face, but I also know I can do something.
4. True partnership requires mutual learning…
"The most powerful lesson I have learned is that in development work, we take away just as much – if not more – than we leave behind."
Many of the ways I choose to care for my children, I learned from watching moms in Caia. They also learned things from me about women’s health. By sharing our experiences with each other, we can begin to see and understand a new way of doing things.
I have learned that when you are truly invested in a community, you can accomplish a lot. Through our partnerships with other grassroots organizations, Mamas 4 Mamas has helped support the education of women and their caregivers on human rights in childbirth. Our scholarship recipient in 2016 and 2017, Grace, is a tireless advocate for women in her community and their rights to access family planning methods and skilled care during their pregnancy and delivery. We are inspired by her and continue our efforts to support her important work. Through positive global health partnerships, we are helping tackle misinformation about the transmission of HIV/AIDS, and helping women talk about family planning and informed consent.
"Development work is not just about financial aid – it’s also about participating in knowledge sharing to increase our understanding of each other."
One of the best ways I have found to do this is through global partnerships at the grassroots level where we can support women and their caregivers through education and mutual respect. I don’t let the things I can’t do (like build new clinics) prevent me from doing what I can. That’s why I choose to support women in addressing their healthcare barriers: so that all women can experience compassionate, skilled care and have access to the full range of reproductive health services.
I have been working in international development long enough to see the harm that can be caused by international organizations when their well-intentioned work is not approached from the perspective of partnership. Fortunately, I have also had the privilege of learning alongside others working for maternal health and women’s rights, work that has taught me so many valuable lessons.
Click here to support Mamas 4 Mamas work to provide scholarships, medications to treat hemorrhage after delivery (the #1 cause of maternal death), and partnership support for grassroots women's organizations.
Erin MacAulay Davalos lives in Regina, SK. Erin founded Mamas 4 Mamas out of a passion for supporting women, in particular childbearing mothers and their families. She interned as a Family Assistance Program Coordinator in Mozambique through Global Affairs Canada's Youth Internship Program (then known as the Canadian International Development Agency). The families she met there made a lasting impact on her and she returned to Canada knowing she would dedicate her life to helping families in under-served communities.
Guest blogs are personal stories from people in our community. The views and opinions expressed in guest blogs are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SCIC or its members.
*A surgical incision of the perineum and the posterior vaginal wall intended to quickly enlarge the opening for the baby to pass through.
Photos courtesy of Mamas 4 Mamas