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Locals help stem the tide of FAS

Pregnant Women Mentoring Programme, run by FASfacts, works with communities at risk to raise their awareness about the impact of alcohol consumption..... 

By Elana van der Watt

The small garden next to Rebecca’s humble
dwelling, which represents so much hope
Every morning Rebecca* (not her real name) rises early to fetch water for her plants from the communal tap in the squatter section of Avian Park.

The 37-year-old mother of five finds it easier to wake up each morning since she stopped drinking. At the time, she was seven months pregnant with her youngest daughter, who is now a toddler.

Rebecca began drinking when she was 17. “I was living with my sister. She and her boyfriend were drinking. They were also fighting a lot. The tension made me very edgy, so I started drinking as well.”

It was a habit she maintained for 15 years until she joined the Pregnant Women Mentoring Programme (PWMP) run by FASfacts. A Worcester-based not-for-profit organisation established in 2002, FASfacts works with communities at risk to raise their awareness about the impact of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Last year its PWMP initiative earned a certificate of recognition from the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund for best practice in child protection, safety and nurturing.

Run in partnership with residents and community leaders, as well as several church groups, the initiative is reliant exclusively on donor funding.

One of its major benefactors is the Distell Group, that invests in a range of educational and life skills programmes targeting vulnerable communities.

FASfacts was founded by Francois Grobbelaar and his wife Marietjie. They and their team have developed an accessible range of educational materials and use a variety of experiential learning programmes targeting not only pregnant women, but also schools, youth and taverners.

Across the board, its focus is on what fetal alcohol syndrome(FAS) does not only to children, but entire families, neighbourhoods and communities.

Many of the residents of Avian Park are seasonal labourers on local farms and some occasionally work as domestics and gardeners.

Social worker Mechelle Liebenberg, who oversees the PWMP, is supported by Amedja Williams. They say many people in the area are barely or semi-literate and job prospects are extremely limited.

Rebecca’s eldest daughter, now 20, has behavioural and possibly intellectual problems too.

Although she hasn’t been tested, her impediments are likely the result of FAS, an entirely preventable condition if women avoid alcohol during pregnancy and while they are breastfeeding.

South Africa has the highest documented incidence of FAS in the world. In certain high-risk rural areas, it is estimated that anywhere between 40% and 72% of children may have symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) of which permanent brain damage is the most predominant. They frequently have problems in concentrating, can be hyperactive, behave unpredictably and have poor anger-management skills.

They often drop out of school, can become delinquents and substance abusers. As they become older, they can engage in inappropriate sexual behaviour, become violent and be responsible for many crimes, from minor infractions to rape and murder.

Rebecca, who has been sober since 2013, is now a mentor and is responsible for three pregnant women, who have chosen to give up drinking. She visits them regularly and has been trained to provide lay counselling to keep them on track. Marilyn*, 24, stopped drinking when she was seven months pregnant. She hopes to become a mentor too. Rebecca has become someone she can trust, and an important role-model.

“Some people, when they stop drinking, find their families become very angry. It’s because when you stay sober you make them feel bad about themselves. We keep the women strong, though, and we remind them that when you don’t drink, you give your unborn baby a future,” says Rebecca. “To stop is to take control and become a better parent.”

Annually, close to 120 people undergo the mentorship programme and have to sign a contract, pledging not to drink while pregnant. They are closely monitored. The success rate is well over 70%, and Grobbelaar, who is also FASfact’s CEO, says the policy is not to be judgmental when mentees lapse. They are encouraged to return to the programme when they are ready.

FASfacts finds that door-to-door campaigns are the most effective way of recruiting pregnant women.

The programme is now in its third year. The team is proud of the success rate achieved to date and says the key to its sustainability has been the increasing inclusion of men in the initiative.

One couple, very active in a local charismatic church, now counsels other couples about staying sober during pregnancy. Doug* works with the men, including some former gangsters, while Lucy* supports the expectant mothers.

Sean* is a close family member of Doug and Lucy. Now in his 50s, he has also become a mentor.

He stopped drinking for the sake of his family. “I want my sons to look up to me, not feel pity or shame for their father.”

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*Names changed to protect the privacy of mentors and mentees.

  • "A new baby is like the beginning of all things - wonder, hope, a dream of possibilities.” ―Eda J. Le Shan

  • “Drinking during pregnancy is linked with disaster – personal disaster for the ‘bright-eyed ones,’ disaster for their families and their hope for their young, and disaster for . . . society as we struggle to pay the huge price of this destruction.” - Prof. Ann Streissguth, Ph.D.

  • "If you're pregnant, don't drink. If you drink, don't get pregnant" - Eva Carner

  • "Every day is FASD Awareness day" - Teresa Kellerman (