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Delivering the News—Ghana’s "Maternal Health Channel"

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Expectant mothers and their caregivers in Ghana can now look to the airwaves for critically important information.

April 5, 2013, marked the 1000-day milestone in working towards the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. The fifth goal, MDG 5, is to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent from 1990 to 2015 and to achieve universal access to reproductive health.

While important progress has been made, we are not nearly close enough to reaching MDG 5. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 800 women die every day across the globe due to avoidable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. In 2010—two-thirds of the way through the MDG period—287,000 women died due to childbirth or pregnancy, only a 47 percent decline from 1990.

Mahmoud Fathalla, former president of the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, points to the social implications of these horrifying statistics in “Human Rights Aspects of Safe Motherhood,” his 2006 study: “Women are not dying during pregnancy and childbirth because of conditions that are difficult to manage. They are dying because the societies in which they live did not see fit to invest what is needed to save their lives.”

Giving birth should not be a death sentence.

In Ghana, where the maternal mortality ratio is 350 deaths for every 100,000 live births—one of the highest in the world—some have started to think outside traditional measures to reach MDG 5. Inspired by Dr. Kwesi Owusu’s documentary, "The Lights Have Gone Out Again," a new television series sheds light on the debate surrounding maternal health strategies while disseminating vital pre- and post-natal health information to Ghanaians: the "Maternal Health Channel" (MHC).

The MHC began airing in February 2013 and is scheduled to continue for a year. The series broadcasts one 30-minute weekly episode for two evening slots on GTV and TV3 in Ghana.

While it takes the form of a TV series, the MHC is very much a channel—or a road or conduit—in that it seeks to connect people to something they need: in this case, maternal health information. Rather than discrete episodes, each individual program combines documentary footage, news broadcast, and narrative drama.

The first problem that leads to high maternal mortality rates in Ghana is a delay at home: when families are unable to spot problem signs related to pregnancy. There's often a further delay in reaching a hospital due to poor infrastructure. And the hospital is likely to be over-crowded and under-staffed, causing more delays in treatment that put women's lives at risk.

Television can help combat the initial delay—the lack of information at home—given its popularity in both rural and urban regions of Ghana. According to a 2009 survey, more than 80 percent of Ghanaians regularly watch television. With so many people tuning in, the MHC has the potential to significantly affect the way people respond to pregnancy and childbirth. Women and their families can receive information that will better equip them to make early decisions about maternal health and safety.

Television can also relieve issues caused by poor infrastructure. In a society that lacks stable infrastructure, broadcast media become one of the more reliable ways to reach people, spread information, and keep people connected. Media theorist Rudolf Arnheim suggested decades ago that television resembles the “motor-car and the aeroplane” in its ability to connect us and, even, transport us mentally—and this is as true today as ever.

In the Kute-Buem region of Ghana, people use the phrase “plying the death” to describe the journey one takes via motorbike over poorly constructed and ill maintained dirt roads. As a response to high maternal mortality rates, the World Health Organization has encouraged women in labor to go to the hospital rather than seek local help, but for too many women that means  “plying the death.” If traditional birth attendants and women themselves had access to the maternal health information they need, fewer women would risk their lives trying to reach an under-staffed hospital in time. The MHC is an example of how television and broadcast media in general can connect us to vital resources when other infrastructure cannot. If the roads have failed, we have the airways to connect us to what we need.

But will the MHC ensure that Ghana reaches MDG 5? Most likely not. It can, however, broaden the conversation about women’s health as a key to peacekeeping as well as social and economic development. Perhaps most significantly, the MHC will ultimately help us begin to imagine the ways we might use television and broadcast more generally to improve women’s health—and subsequently advance women’s rights and amplify women’s voices.

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