Apostolic Sect Women Defy Religious Teachings To Save Their Children

By Newsday Zimbabwe

 

‘I JOINED a secret base to save my children from dying. The church that I go to does not allow the vaccination of children. Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) helped me, especially with how to care for my children. All my children received BCG, polio and measles vaccinations,” says Anna Kanyati (not her real name) from the Gwamatenga area in Mwenezi district, Masvingo province.

A devout member of the apostolic sect with four children, Kanyati (22) had to secretly seek healthcare services to avoid confrontation with her husband and the church.

In 2022, Kanyati’s district, Mwenezi, was one of the ten districts hit hard by a measles outbreak that claimed the lives of 700 children across the country.

In response, the Ministry of Health and Child Care ran a measles vaccination campaign targeting children between 5 and below 15 years in partnership with UNICEF and WHO.

Social data generated by UNICEF and partners to understand the drivers of low vaccination in the Measles affected districts revealed that misinformation, disinformation, lack of community knowledge of an understanding of the importance of vaccines and religious/traditional beliefs are among the main causes of low immunization coverage among young children.

In partnership with Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust AWET, to address these challenges, UNICEF collaborated with the Ministry of Health and Child Care to increase awareness and build trust among the communities on measles and childhood immunization. With financial support from the United Nations Central Emergency Fund, UNICEF and its partners engaged hesitant communities such as the Apostolic sect to build their trust in vaccination and appreciate the health benefits of vaccinating children.

Through AWET, an organisation that engages religious women and faith leaders to increase immunisation uptake, many like Kanyati have found solace and access to invaluable education on vaccination against measles and polio.

“I am happy that I joined the secret base. At church, we are given water to heal these illnesses, which only if we knew that they required vaccination, children would not be sickly every month. At church, I ended up confessing to things I didn’t know and some I didn’t do out of fear, yet all the answers were through vaccinating my children. Sometimes we were told to take margarine and coke as medication for ailments, but the children’s condition would not change,” Kanyati confides.

“At the secret base, I am given family planning pills, and they have taught me how they are taken. Family planning has helped me nurse my child, who is now eight months old, which is rare in my church.

“My husband and I are still young and already we have four young children. It is difficult to nurse so many little children at once and this has led to some apostolic women neglecting themselves in terms of cleanliness. We have no time as the children need attention from one mother. AWET really helped me. They also taught us the importance of having toilets, washing of hands and maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” she adds.

Village health facilitator Shenet Shoko says she works with AWET to ensure children are immunised early so they do not die from preventable diseases. “I am not a member of the apostolic sect, but my main goal is to make sure women bring children for vaccination. I work with the apostolic sect women and their husbands are a big impediment to children getting vaccinated, mainly citing their right to freedom of worship. My main duty is to mobilise these women and make sure we stop these diseases,” Shoko explains.

“I was trained by the Ministry of Health and Child Care in 2019. I now work with 15 to 20 women at the secret base, where we are winning. We have taught apostolic sect women the importance of family planning. We have been holding dialogues with these women, from the apostolic sect community and raising awareness on the importance of vaccination against measles and other vaccinations deemed necessary for the protection of children. We tell them not to hide children, but to bring them for vaccinations that are free of charge.”

Chikava Lopi, a health teacher at Gwamatenga Primary School in Mwenezi, expressed gratitude to the Health Ministry, UNICEF, AWET and other stakeholders for training village health workers to uphold the health of parents and children in their villages.

“Health workshops have helped us in this community. Working with trained health workers was an advantage to us. A lot of parents are now accepting the vaccination of children. Only a few have remained sceptical, especially religious parents who have denied their children vaccinations. We have told our people that if the government brings health programmes to our communities, we must quickly grasp and accept them, for they are for our benefit,” Chikava says.

Another village health worker, Patronella Guva of Ward 6, also at Gwamatenga Primary School, narrates how they have managed to mobilise, educate and create awareness about measles vaccination in the apostolic sect community.

“Working with AWET and the Ministry of Health and Child Care, we have managed to preach at village meetings and those who have accepted vaccination for their children come secretly. In that way, we have managed to vaccinate children from the apostolic sects,” she says.

Village health workers have penetrated the hard-to-reach areas, which has seen a lot of children getting vaccinated for measles, polio, malaria and other health cases

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Safe deliveries as mothers in Mashonaland Central leave home birthing behind

By Emma Mafara Originally from UNICEF Zimbabwe

After delivering 7 babies at home and suffering a miscarriage, Maria is now an advocate for safer deliveries at health facilities.

 

Maria Zhangazha, a 36-year-old mother of eight, quivers as she recalls how a failed home birth resulted in a miscarriage that almost killed her due to excessive bleeding.

From the town of Shamva in Mashonaland Central Province, she explains how she fainted due to bleeding and the grief and anxiety that followed the traumatic experience.

“Delivering a baby at home can be a life-threatening experience for many women like us hindered from accessing safe delivery services due to our religious beliefs,” shared Maria who is a member of an apostolic religious sect that often refuse medical treatment of any kind, even in the most severe cases of injury or illness.

Maria, like most women from her religious sect had never experienced a safe facility delivery.

“I delivered my seven children at home with the assistance of traditional birth attendants. This is normal for us who belong to my church (apostolic faith). In 2018, I suffered a miscarriage for my eighth pregnancy and that almost claimed my life,” Maria said.

The trauma she suffered following the miscarriage changed her mind about home delivery.

However, two years after the miscarriage, she conceived again: “I was stressed and often imagined that I would die and leave my other children.”

Thanks to the UNICEF trained Village Health Workers now embedded within her apostolic community who have helped in increasing knowledge and awareness on Maternal Neonatal Child Health (MNCH) and social issues, she felt compelled and received an early antenatal booking at a healthcare facility.

“The Village Health Workers selected from within our religious sect came to our community and shared the benefits of early antenatal bookings and facility deliveries with us, specifically on safe delivery and childcare, hearing the message from one of our own ,I felt empowered and confident to make decisions about my sexual reproductive health” Maria added.

She visited her local clinic for antenatal care, for the first time and received counselling.

With the presence of qualified and experienced birth attendants and health workers, safe deliveries are now possible for mothers like Maria, who were among the 7,659 pregnant women reached with the VHWs health education activities in Mashonaland Central last year.

“When I was nearing my expected delivery date, my husband took me to Shamva town together with my youngest two-year-old children to stay with his sister close to the hospital. He was also worried considering my previous delivery. He kept praying for me and the baby,” stated Maria.

‘‘I became motivated after my first delivery experience at the health facility and made regular visits, to ensure that all my children get other services such as vaccinations, which my other seven children did not get before,” she added.

Maria is now an active advocate for young women within the apostolic sect to register early for antenatal care, to deliver their babies in the facility, and to access healthcare services to keep their families safe from diseases.

“I feel happy that my child is healthy. The services are good at the hospital. At home I would deliver on a dirty sack, the traditional birth attendants would use unsterilized razor blades and thread. This time I had all the support from the nurses, and I felt at ease compared to what I used to do while delivering at home.”

Maria is now urging women to stop the risky and potentially harmful practices and visit health facilities to avoid unwanted outcomes. She is one of the thousands of women who were supported by UNICEF with support from The Australian Government and the Health Development Fund (HDF), which is funded by the EU, UK Aid, Sweden, Irish Aid, Gavi and

Shamva District Community Health Nurse, Netty Nelson said that UNICEF is working with health facilities in Mashonaland Central and across the country for better quality health care services.

“The programme helps improve facilities, train the health workers, and provides essential medicines and medical supplies,” he said.

One of UNICEF’s key partners – the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) is providing support through engaging hesitant communities to address social norms that hinder young women and girls from the uptake of MNCH services for young women. It is also working on changing behaviours in Apostolic communities around COVID-19 prevention as well as prevention of Gender-Based Violence.

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