Applying a gender lens to understand pathways through care for acutely ill young children in Kenyan urban informal settlements
BACKGROUND: In many African settings, gender strongly influences household treatment-seeking and decision-making for childhood illnesses. While mothers are often the primary engagers with health facilities, their independence in illness-related decisions is shaped by various factors. Drawing on a gender lens, we explored treatment-seeking pathways pre- and post-hospital admission for acutely ill young children living in low income settlements in Nairobi, Kenya; and the gendered impact of child illness both at the household and health system level. METHODS: Household members of 22 children admitted to a public hospital were interviewed in their homes several times post hospital discharge. In-depth interviews covered the child's household situation, health and illness; and the family's treatment-seeking choices and experiences. Children were selected from an observational cohort established by the Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition (CHAIN) Network. RESULTS: Treatment-seeking pathways were often long and complex, with mothers playing the key role in caring for their children and in treatment decision-making. Facing many anxieties and dilemmas, mothers often consulted with significant influencers - primarily women - particularly where illnesses were prolonged or complex. In contrast to observations in rural African contexts, fathers were less prominent as influencers than (often female) neighbours, grandparents and other relatives. Mothers were sometimes blamed for their child's condition at home and at health facilities. Children's illness episode and associated treatment-seeking had significant gendered socio-economic consequences for households, including through mothers having to take substantial time off work, reduce their working hours and income, or even losing their jobs. CONCLUSION: Women in urban low-income settings are disproportionately impacted by acute child illness and the related treatment-seeking and recovery process. The range of interventions needed to support mothers as they navigate their way through children's illnesses and recovery include: deliberate engagement of men in child health to counteract the dominant perception of child health and care as a 'female-domain'; targeted economic strategies such as cash transfers to safeguard the most vulnerable women and households, combined with more robust labour policies to protect affected women; as well as implementing strategies at the health system level to improve interactions between health workers and community members.