Exploring the equity impact of a maternal and newborn health intervention: a qualitative study of participatory women’s groups in rural South Asia and Africa

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A consensus is developing on interventions to improve newborn survival, but little is known about how to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in newborn mortality in low- and middle-income countries. Participatory learning and action (PLA) through women’s groups can improve newborn survival and home care practices equitably across socioeconomic strata, as shown in cluster randomised controlled trials. We conducted a qualitative study to understand the mechanisms that led to the equitable impact of the PLA approach across socioeconomic strata in four trial sites in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Malawi.


We conducted 42 focus group discussions (FGDs) with women who had attended groups and women who had not attended, in poor and better-off communities. We also interviewed six better-off women and nine poor women who had delivered babies during the trials and had demonstrated recommended behaviours. We conducted 12 key informant interviews and five FGDs with women’s group facilitators and fieldworkers.


Women’s groups addressed a knowledge deficit in poor and better-off women. Women were engaged through visual learning and participatory tools, and learned from the facilitator and each other. Facilitators enabled inclusion of all socioeconomic strata, ensuring that strategies were low-cost and that discussions and advice were relevant. Groups provided a social support network that addressed some financial barriers to care and gave women the confidence to promote behaviour change. Information was disseminated through home visits and other strategies. The social process of learning and action, which led to increased knowledge, confidence to act, and acceptability of recommended practices, was key to ensuring behaviour change across social strata. These equitable effects were enabled by the accessibility, relevance, and engaging format of the intervention.


Participatory learning and action led to increased knowledge, confidence to act, and acceptability of recommended practices. The equitable behavioural effects were facilitated by the accessibility, relevance, and engaging format of the intervention across socioeconomic groups, and by reaching-out to parts of the population usually not accessed. A PLA approach improved health behaviours across socioeconomic strata in rural communities, around issues for which there was a knowledge deficit and where simple changes could be made at home.

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