A ‘Sheltering’ Grace: The maternity waiting home giving hope to mothers in rural Zimbabwe

Maternity waiting shelters where expectant women can stay during their last 6 weeks of pregnancy, have become critical in saving lives in rural Zimbabwe.

Nyasha Mutizwa
evelyn muleya
UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Nyasha Mutizwa
10 May 2021

BINGA, Zimbabwe - Evelyn Mleya, 34, knew what would unfold if her water broke in her village located in the deep valleys of Binga District. Villagers would look for any car, and if one could not be found, they would load her onto a donkey cart. In the scorching Binga heat, they would make the bumpy 60 km journey to Sianzundu Rural Health Centre – the closest medical facility to the pregnant mother of 3.

When Evelyn was told she could spend the last 6 weeks of her pregnancy at the clinic, she jumped at the opportunity.

“For my other 3 children, I was not so lucky to have access to such a facility. I used to have to walk 4 hours to get here, even at the later stages of my pregnancies. I suffered very painful and prolonged labor pains,” Eveyln explains.

  “My husband is unemployed and cannot afford to pay for a vehicle to take me to the clinic for delivery. But now he doesn’t have to worry. I can stay here and get quick access to medical attention at any time and be transferred to the facility on my due date,” she adds with a smile.

A mothers’ shelter - A simple idea, and a good one.

In the latest Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) 2019 report, Zimbabwe recorded a decline in maternal mortality from 614 to 462 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies since 2014. This significant drop is in part attributed to mothers’ shelters such as this one located in the rural Tonga speaking region of the Matebeleland North Province.  

The Binga district with a population of over 200,000, has no ambulance. The shelter dramatically cuts the long distances that women must travel to access quality obstetric care.


UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Nyasha Mutizwa
Residences near health facilities are making it easier for pregnant women in rural Zimbabwe to receive maternity care in a timely manner

“The women can stay here from 35 weeks. This space should accommodate 15 women but sometimes we can have up to 30. Some have been here for close to a month because the village is far and food is scarce at home,” explains Collia Mwembe, the Registered General Nurse (RGN), as he points around in what resembles a poor school dormitory, with 7 simple beds crammed into two rooms.

At this mothers’ shelter, preference is given to those pregnant with their first baby, those delivering through caesarean section, those with high blood pressure and or those having their fifth child. A shelter close to medical experts equally prevents hemorrhages, which MICS 2019 reported to have caused 26% of maternal deaths in 2019.

“It is not an ideal place. The ladies must walk 400 metres to fetch water with buckets as there is no running water. There is no electricity. Their nightmare does not end here as there are snakes around at night. Though we face many challenges, we deal with them because the complications of dealing with unmonitored pregnancies would be far greater,” explains RGN Mwembe.

maternity shelter
UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Nyasha Mutizwa
Maternity shelters are designed to prevent haemorrhage, which health experts say is the major contributor of deaths for women during delivery

Thanks to the Government of Zimbabwe, supported by UNICEF through the Health Development Fund (HDF), supported by the EU, UK Aid, Sweden, Irish Aid and Gavi. Along with food contributions made via traditional, religious and community leaders, the health centre has now installed a borehole and is working on installing solar power.

The health post is now on a better footing to provide a sanctuary for the women in the catchment population of 26,895.

One such beneficiary is 19-year-old Shown Nkomezia, 9 months pregnant and expecting for the first time. For her, it is not about a beautifully decorated maternity ward. Rather, it is about having a clean and basic space where she can access pre and postnatal care.

“This is my first pregnancy. There are many things I do not know. I have learned about delivery and the benefits of breast feeding. The shelter is preparing me for motherhood,” she explains. “And the feeling of a community. We all clean, cook and eat together. Sharing our struggles really gives some much-needed comfort,” she concludes hugging her big bump. 

Using mothers’ shelters, Zimbabwe continues to work towards the global target of reducing the maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 pregnancies by 2030. UNICEF is working in partnership with the Government to address the issue.