14 April 2016
Two months into her pregnancy Johanna*, a 17-year-old Vredenburg resident, was still drinking alcohol. No one had yet told Johanna the effects alcohol could have on her unborn child.
If she had known what Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is, she says, she would have chosen not to drink those first two months.
Over six percent of children in the West Coast are born with FASD, according to a three-year study commissioned by the Western Cape Department of Social Development (DSD). The study was completed on 31 March and focused on the Saldanha Bay district municipal area.
Having participated in a programme through the study, Johanna, now seven months pregnant, no longer drinks. However, she thinks many women in the Saldanha Bay area are still unaware of FASD, she said.
“If they understood, they would have stopped drinking,” she said.
There is a strong culture of drinking in the Saldanha Bay area, according to Anna*, a 34-year-old Diazville resident who recently gave birth.
Liquor stores and shebeens are prevalent, and there is no easy way to change the culture, she said.
“It’s everywhere. Everywhere you go,” she said.
Through the study’s Healthy Mother Healthy Baby Programme, Anna learned what FASD was about 11 months ago, when she was pregnant with her second child. The programme aims to provide information to willing pregnant women in the area. Anna, who does not drink alcohol, had never heard of the disorder.
Many women in the area still do not know about it, and Anna tries to raise awareness, she said. When she tells her family, friends and neighbours about it, it is the first time they have heard of it.
She voiced particular concerns about young women who become pregnant. “What do they know?” she said.
When Johanna joined the study’s programme, she was shown videos of the effects of FASD. FASD can leave a child physically deformed and also affect the child’s cognitive abilities.
Johanna has seen what she thinks are a lot of FASD symptoms in the area. She said she felt sorry for the babies. “It’s not their fault, it’s their mothers’ faults.”
A community worker with the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research, the organisation that partnered with (DSD) for the study, hopes that the women who took part in the study’s programme will be able to build FASD awareness by word of mouth. Two hundred women participated in the programme.
“They’re very involved—the community—with each other, so I think they’ll spread the word,” she said.
However, both Johanna and Anna think there are other more effective awareness-raising strategies. Johanna believes organisations such as FARR should continue to come into the community to help, while Anna believes there should be more discussions at schools. Pregnant women should not be the only targets, she said. “You need to go to the schools and explain to them … how bad everything is.”
*Not their real names. The women did not want to give their names so that they would not be recognised in their communities.