In the Malawian village of Mkanda, Mchinji District, Melinda Katukula Banda prepares to begin her day and greet the soon-to-be mothers she is dedicated to keeping healthy. Affectionately dubbed Gogo Chalo by her community, Melinda is a community leader in her village, providing lifesaving malaria services and serving as a trusted source of guidance and wisdom among her neighbors.
Malawi is classified as a high malaria burden country, with children younger than five-years-old and pregnant mothers facing the brunt of malaria disease. Women are especially vulnerable to malaria infection during pregnancy, which poses numerous risks to their unborn children. Accessing antimalarial medicine and insecticidal nets through antenatal care (ANC) as early as possible in pregnancy is an effective means to prevent malaria-related complications for expectant mothers and their unborn babies. Expanding awareness of ANC and encouraging communities to proactively seek antenatal care early and consistently is paramount. The National Malaria Control Program (NMCP) has therefore underscored community engagement in their national strategic plan—empowering local leadership to protect their communities from malaria in pregnancy (MIP).
Having noticed the alarming burden of malaria on pregnant women in her village, Melinda joined over 200 community leaders from three Malawian districts—Kasungu, Mchinji, and Nkhatabay—in a community engagement training program supported by PMI Impact Malaria, the flagship malaria service delivery project of the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI). Through these sessions, community leaders were trained to dispel disinformation and empower pregnant women to take ownership over their health.
Melinda experienced firsthand the devastation wrought by malaria—she herself lost a five-month pregnancy, and nearly lost her only daughter to the disease. She is also familiar with the local cultural belief that disclosing pregnancy at an early stage is taboo, which means that pregnant women may be reluctant to seek essential healthcare when it matters most. Melinda realized the opportunity to help prospective mothers in her village seek essential preventive care, and enrolled in the community engagement training, where she learned how to lead community dialogues about ANC through responsive coaching and mentorship.
During these training sessions, community leaders developed action plans to encourage ANC visits within their communities. Melinda shared that she aims to work alongside other elders in her village to follow-up with possible pregnancies and ensure that all pregnant women access ANC. “I am returning home enriched with knowledge and shared experiences from my fellow senior chiefs,” Melinda reflected on her training experience. “I am determined to ensure that no pregnant woman in my community endures the hardships of malaria-related complications any longer,” she added.
Melinda shared that her newfound malaria knowledge and strategies for supporting malaria in pregnancy care have empowered her to leverage her status as a community leader. She hopes to provide a safe and welcoming environment for pregnant women to seek guidance about available malaria services and address their concerns. By sharing positive ANC messaging in her community, and directing pregnant women to malaria service providers, Melinda reinforces her commitment to supporting the expansion of malaria diagnosis and treatment services to hard-to-reach communities—so that all mothers can assume an active role in their healthcare. “I now stand as a champion and will lead efforts to encourage early antenatal care to protect [pregnant mothers] from malaria,” she said.
PMI Impact Malaria supports NMCPs to strengthen MIP interventions in Malawi and 8 other malaria-endemic countries (Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania) by conducting training programs and generating demand for these services through community leaders like Melinda. Interactive community engagement and more awareness of the dangers of malaria in pregnancy can increase the percentage of pregnant mothers receiving high quality malaria services through ANC.
PMI Impact Malaria is funded and technically assisted by the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) and is led by Population Services International (PSI) in partnership with Jhpiego, MCD Global Health, and the Malaria Elimination Institute (MEI) at the University of California San Francisco.