“Provide care for everyone please”: engaging community leaders as sexual and reproductive health advocates in North and South Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo
by Victoria J Steven, Julianne Deitch, Erin Files Dumas, Meghan C Gallagher, Jimmy Nzau, Augustin Paluku, Sara E Casey
Reproductive Health 2019;16, Article no.98 (Open access)
Inadequate infrastructure, security threats from ongoing armed conflict, and conservative socio-cultural and gender norms that favour large families and patriarchal power structures contribute to poor sexual and reproductive health (SRH) outcomes in North and South Kivu provinces, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In order to expand contraceptive and post-abortion care (PAC) access in North and South Kivu, CARE, the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children provided technical support to the Ministry of Health and health facilities in these regions. Partners acknowledged that community leaders, given their power to influence local customs, could play a critical role as agents of change in addressing inequitable gender norms, stigma surrounding SRH service utilization, and topics traditionally considered taboo within Congolese society. As such, partners actively engaged with community leaders through a variety of activities such as community mapping exercises, values clarification and transformation (VCAT) activities, situational analyses, and education.
This manuscript presents findings from 12 key informant interviews (KIIs) with male political and non-political community leaders conducted in six rural health zones of North and South Kivu, DRC. Transcripts were analysed thematically to explore community leaders’ perceptions of their role in addressing the issue of unintended pregnancy in their communities.
While community leaders in this study expressed overall positive impressions of contraception and strong support for ensuring access to PAC services following spontaneous and induced abortions, the vast majority held negative beliefs concerning women who had induced abortion. Contrasting with their professed opposition to induced abortion, leaders’ commitment to mediating interpersonal conflict arising between community members and women who had abortions was overwhelming.
Results from this study suggest that when thoughtfully engaged by health interventions, community leaders can be empowered to become advocates for SRH. While study participants were strong supporters of contraception and PAC, they expressed negative perceptions of induced abortion. Given the hypothesized link between the presence of induced abortion stigma and care-avoidance behavior, further engagement and values clarification exercises with leaders must be integrated into community mobilization and engagement activities in order to increase PAC utilization.