Women's autonomy and maternal health decision making in Kenya: implications for service delivery reform - a qualitative study

Olwanda E, Opondo K, Oluoch D, Croke K, Maluni J, Jepkosgei J, Nzinga J
BMC Womens Health. 2024;24

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BACKGROUND: Maternal and neonatal outcomes in, Kakamega County is characterized by a maternal mortality rate of 316 per 100,000 live births and a neonatal mortality rate of 19 per 1,000 live births. In 2018, approximately 70,000 births occurred in the county, with 35% at home, 28% in primary care facilities, and 37% in hospitals. A maternal and child health service delivery redesign (SDR) that aims to reorganize maternal and newborn health services is being implemented in Kakamega County in Kenya to improve the progress of these indicators. Research has shown that women's ability to make decisions (voice, agency, and autonomy) is critical for gender equality, empowerment and an important determinant of access and utilization. As part of the Kakamega SDR process evaluation, this study sought to understand women's processes of decision-making in seeking maternal health care and how these affect women's ability to access and use antenatal, delivery, and post-natal services. METHODS: We adapted the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) conceptual framework for reproductive empowerment to focus on the interrelated concepts of "female autonomy and "women's agency" with the latter incorporating 'voice' 'choice' and 'power'. Our adaptation did not consider the influence of sexual relationships and leadership on SRH decision-making. We conducted key informant interviews in-depth interviews small group interviews and focus group discussions with pregnant women attending Antenatal clinics women who had delivered women attending post-natal clinics and men in Kakamega County. A thematic analysis approach was used to analyze the data in NVivo 12. RESULTS: The results revealed notable findings across three dimensions of agency. Women with previous birthing experiences high self-esteem and support from their social networks exhibited greater agency. Additionally positive previous birthing experiences were associated with increased confidence in making reproductive health choices. Women who had control over financial resources and experienced respectful communication with their partners exhibited higher levels of agency within their households. Distance relational agency demonstrated the impact of health system factors and socio-cultural norms on women's agency and autonomy. Finally women who faced barriers such as long waiting times or limited staff availability experienced reduced agency in seeking healthcare. CONCLUSIONS: Individual agency immediate relational agency and distance relational agency all play crucial roles in shaping women's decision-making power and control over their utilization of maternal health services. This study offers valuable insights that can guide the ongoing implementation of an innovative service delivery redesign model emphasizing the critical need for developing context-specific strategies to promote women's voices for sustained use."