A letter from Inge Sthreshley in Congo
The despair in Marie Katende’s eyes is haunting. She lives in a small, mud-brick house with a thatched roof, no running water, no electricity, and obviously very little food. The ground around her house is swept clean and there are a few coffee trees in the yard. Marie is a widow and her daughter and three grandchildren live with her. The grandchildren are all under 5 years of age, all underclothed and underfed. Two of the children are severely malnourished with signs of edema. Her daughter’s husband, she said, was off in Angola. Life has clearly been very difficult for Marie. Through the ASSP (Access to Primary Health Care) project a trained community relay will come alongside Marie and work with her over the next three months to help her and her daughter put in a garden of nutritious perennials and green leafy vegetables and talk with her about how best to feed the children.
Mother’s Day is around the corner. When I think about the challenges that the average Congolese mother faces, it is heartbreaking. At an ASSP staff meeting in March Yvette Mulongo gave a short presentation to the staff on gender. “Life for many women in Congo is precarious and difficult,” she said, and she began to lay out the statistics. “70 percent of Congo’s women live in rural areas, which means they don’t have access to running water, electricity and often medical care. 70 percent live on less than $1 a day. The average life expectancy for a woman in Congo is 47 years. The literacy rate for women is 41 percent.” “Women in Congo,” Yvette explained, “are often victims of social injustice, and victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Many of their children are hungry, 43 percent of the children under 5 years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition.” “And they lose their children,” she continued, “97 children out of 1,000 die before their 1st birthday. Their daughters marry young, often at 13 or 14 years of age, and start bearing children too early. Their daughters die in child birth, with maternal mortality at 540 per 100,000 live births.”
I could have left that meeting very discouraged with those statistics. But actually I left encouraged, because as I looked around the room I realized we had several women in that room, mothers themselves, who were using their gifts, talents, and education to make life better for their fellow Congolese women. I would like to introduce you to them because they are an inspiration to me every day.
Yvette Mulongo has worked over 20 years in family planning and with programs addressing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Now she is the Gender Advisor to the ASSP project. She challenges all of us to have a larger vision of the role of women in Congo. She is tracking how well the ASSP project is empowering women and achieving gender balance in its health activities. And in so doing she is pushing all the implementing partners to reflect and act on advancing the involvement of women. “Women,” she says, “are the gateway for the development and well-being of their communities.”
Dr. Marie Claude Mbuyi is the Women’s Health Specialist for the ASSP project. Dr. Marie Claude is responsible for all the activities involving family planning and maternal and newborn care. ASSP has a challenging family planning target of 450,000 “couple year’s protection” in the next three years and ensuring family planning materials are available at all 920 health facilities. She is also responsible for planning the training for the nurses and doctors in 56 health zones, to upgrade their skill level and knowledge of best practices in maternal and newborn care.
Dr. Charlotte Ndolerire is the malaria specialist for the ASSP project. Malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, is the second leading cause of death for children under 5 years of age in Congo. Dr. Charlotte has been a strong advocate for the “Hang Up Strategy” for bed nets, and she convinced the government and donors to pilot-test the approach in South Kivu. They were able to show that “Hang Up” was a more effective strategy than mass campaigns or routine distribution to get people to use bed nets. She is now organizing a “Hang Up” distribution of 800,000 bed nets over a six-month period.
Dr. Gisele Lowa is the point person for ASSP health activities in Orientale and Maniema provinces, working to strengthen the health system in the part of the country where she was raised. CARITAS is the implementing partner in those provinces and she works closely with Dr. Ninette Mbuyi of CARITAS with activities involving women’s reproductive health, family planning, and SGBV.
Thank you for your financial support, which enables Larry and me to work with these dynamic Congolese women who are moving their country forward. We hope you will continue to be a part of this health ministry through your financial gifts for our sending and support and through your prayers.
Please keep these women in your prayers also. The challenges they face to bring better health care to women and children in the far reaches of Congo are significant. Congo has consistently rated among the worst places in the world to be a mother. Join us as we work together toward a shared dream; that someday every day will be a good day to be a mother in the Congo.
“God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” Ephesians 3:20
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 138
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