Men think that if a woman is pregnant, it’s her problem,” says Dr. Alex Dimiti, Director General of Reproductive Health at the Ministry of Health in South Sudan. “They sit and watch what will happen to her.” The number of fathers accompanying their wives to Antenatal Care Centres (ANC) in South Sudan is staggeringly low, says Dimiti. Experts suggest that men ignoring their prenatal responsibilities is partly responsible for the high rate of infant and maternal mortality in the nascent country.
South Sudan’s maternal mortality stands at 2,054 per 100,000 live births, making the country the worst ranked in the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UN- FPA). Data published by the World Bank in 2015 shows that the infant mortality rate is also higher than the Sub-Saharan African average, a rate of 60 out of 1,000.
Dimiti says trial projects to teach men about the benefits of attending prenatal sessions have paid off in neighbouring countries, like Kenya and Uganda. Yet the director of reproductive health says it is difficult to reach out to all areas of the country when the ministry has under 5,000 trained health professionals and village midwives available in total.
Strength in numbers
“When husbands accompany their wives, they understand the problems associated with pregnancy in which the male partner has a role to play,” says Nhial Daniel, a medical student in Juba. He points out that joint early pregnancy sessions can help identify any sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) either partner might be carrying. “If men are involved, then the couple can be tested for HIV and other STDs. This ensures the health of the baby. With a male companion, a woman feels supported and there will be better care for the family,” Nhial says.
Pregnancy: the father also has a role to play.
On a recent morning at Juba Medical Hospital’s maternal facility, the absence of males spouses was stark. Out of ten women who arrived to the ANC centre at the hospital between 10am and 11:30am, only three were accompanied by men. “Maybe in a day, only eight or ten show up at the centre with their wives. Most men feel ashamed to escort their wives here,” says the registrar at the centre, who asked not to be named. She says that when she asks patients why they come alone, they mainly reply that their husbands were “too busy with work”.
Dimiti says the ministry has a policy that prioritises maternal and infant health. “Male involvement in antenatal care plays a role in empowering women of reproductive ages,” says Dimiti. The director cited a lack of awareness and limited health outreach personnel as key hindrances to reducing the rates of child and maternal mortality. He encourages men to visit ANCs and learn about the benefits of sharing antenatal responsibility for both the father and child.