From Seamstress to Community Health Worker: Justine's Story

Justine during a home visit with a father and his son. {Photo credit: MSH}

Justine Mbombo, age 38, lives in a small village called Beya in Kasaï Occidental Province in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with a population of roughly 520 people. There are more than 100 children under age 5 in Justine’s village, and no doctor. Watching children suffer has affected Justine deeply and moved her to become more involved in the health of her community.

“In January 2010, we were affected by a measles epidemic that caused the deaths of many children under age 5. I felt very touched by this epidemic and wondered how I could contribute to reducing if not completely ending these problems,” Justine says. “Later, during a conversation with a nurse, she told me that we could avoid these diseases by educating the population and helping them to adopt health-friendly practices, including visiting a health center quickly under certain conditions.”

This conversation was the first step in Justine’s evolution from a seamstress to a community health worker. The second step came in April 2012, when the USAID-funded DRC-Integrated Health Project (DRC-IHP), led by Management Sciences for Health, arrived in her area with a mandate to revitalize health centers. This called for engaging local residents, and Justine, along with other volunteers, was trained in the community-based management of common childhood illnesses including malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia as well as the promotion of positive family health practices.

Justine’s commitment to this work is unusual, because more than 92% of the volunteer community health workers in the DRC nationwide are men. In general, gender roles relegate women to staying at home to tend to her family and deprive them from participating in educational opportunities such the training that DRC-IHP provided Justine. This is particularly true in Kasai Occidental Province, Justine’s home province, where only 4.5% of health workers are women.

The DRC-IHP project is working to change that by promoting gender equality in all four provinces where the project is located.

“With the skills I have learned, I now care for about 20 children monthly who have uncomplicated cases of pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria. I guide all cases with critical symptoms to health facilities for appropriate care. I also conduct home visits to 18 families each month,” Justine says.

''Today, we no longer have outbreaks, when epidemics used to be frequent,” Justine says with pride. “I realize that my small gesture, my commitment, my community assistance saves lives and thank DRC-IHP for providing me with training for quality care.''

Implemented by Management Sciences for Health with partners the International Rescue Committee and Overseas Strategic Consulting, DRC-IHP is working to improve the basic health conditions of the Congolese people, especially the most vulnerable—such as children under age 5—in 80 health zones in four provinces.