Feature: Cultural beliefs hinder pregnant women in Kenya from better health   2012-07-11 18:36:32            

by Bedah Mengo

NAIROBI, July 11 (Xinhua) -- Grace Moire, a 6-month pregnant woman living in Kenya's capital Nairobi, for the last six months, she has not eaten a certain kind of food instead of taking a balanced diet for the sake of her health and that of the unborn baby, only because of traditional practice.

"Ever since I became pregnant, I have not eaten bananas and eggs because I fear they will interfere with my baby. They may cause her to grow big so that I encounter problems during delivery, " Moire recounted at a recent maternal health forum in Nairobi.

The mother of three noted it is her mother who taught her the kinds of meals to eat and those to avoid during pregnancy.

"I have followed her advice ever since I got married. When I became pregnant with my first child, I avoided the meals and nothing bad happened to me. I did the same with my second baby and all went well. This is my third pregnancy and I am adhering to the same advice," she noted.

Interestingly, when she is not pregnant, bananas and eggs are ones of her favorite meals. "A day cannot end without me eating a banana because I love them and they are my best fruits," she noted.

Moire is among thousands of other women in Kenya, who hold certain cultural beliefs and practices, which they strictly adhere to when pregnant.

Maternal health experts note that these practices, which prevent pregnant women from eating certain foods or exercising, are responsible for negative maternal and child health outcomes in the East African nation.

So rampant are some of the practices, especially in rural Kenya and among urban poor that many pregnant women remain poorly nourished. In turn, the women give birth to children who experience various health challenges that include low-weight.

"These retrogressive cultural beliefs and practices contribute to reluctance to adopt good practices through behavior change in relation to maternal and child nutrition," noted Dr Elizabeth Kimani, a researcher at African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC).

The maternal health expert observed that the negative cultural practices are rampant despite Kenya having high levels of literacy.

"It may be inconvincible that such beliefs still exist but in reality they are very present and are a major setback for pregnant women and their children to attain better health," she said.

The beliefs, according to Kimani, are a threat to Millennium Development Goals four and five, which aim at reducing child mortality and improving maternal health respectively.

Moire noted that she avoids eggs for fear that her child may suffer delayed or slurred speech.

"I saw some children, from where I come from in Kisii, having speech impairment among other challenges and the problems were traced to eggs, which their mothers were eating in plenty," she recounted.

But it is not only women from her community, who avoid the meal, pregnant women from various communities in Kenya, it is noted, shun eggs.

Some participants observed that eggs are not only avoided by expectant women, even those who are not pregnant shun them for one reason or another.

"They are not good for women because sometimes they interfere with the menstrual cycle. That is why traditionally in most communities, eggs were only eaten by men," observed Beatrice, a participant at the forum.

When it comes to fruits, pregnant women in some communities are highly discouraged from eating avocados and bananas.

It is believed that the two contain "a lot of energy" and may cause the foetus to grow bigger thus forcing the mother to deliver through caesarean section.

Of all kinds of foods, none is, however, shunned most by many pregnant women than proteins, which include fish, chicken and beef.

Most of them fear that when they eat the meals, they may become too fat and their infants will in turn overgrow causing birth complications.

And as a pregnant woman nears her date of delivery, having heavy meals, participants noted, is discouraged.

This is because women believe that excess food may interfere with the pushing of the baby or in some instances, a mother may poop during delivery, which is considered extremely embarrassing and an abomination.

Kimani explained that no medical evidence has linked moderate intake of any food to birth complications.

"The foods are excellent and affordable sources of the much- needed nutrients during pregnancy and avoiding them may mean missing out on essential nutrients and limited food diversity, which eventually results into poor maternal nutrition and increases risks of infant mortality and morbidity," she said.

Sadly, she noted, the same cultural beliefs prohibit pregnant women from seeking professional advice from healthcare facilities where they can receive right information for the benefit of their babies and themselves.

The doctor said that to eliminate such practices and beliefs, a lot of awareness is needed among pregnant women and men who sometimes ensure women do not eat certain foods.

"As APHRC, we are doing it in two slums in Nairobi where we are implementing a community-based intervention program on maternal and infant nutrition," she explained.

"This will involve personalized home-based counseling of pregnant women and mothers in Korogocho and Viwandani informal settlements on optimal maternal and infant nutrition," she added.

In Kenya, the 2009 demographic health survey indicated that neonatal and infant mortality rates stand at 31 and 52 in 1,000 live births respectively. It is further estimated that 414 women die per 100,000 live births.

Globally, it is indicated that poor maternal and child nutrition are the underlying causes of up to 3.5 million deaths annually.

Editor: Wang Yuanyuan
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