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Leadership in maternal and newborn health: Fatima Muhammad, Nigeria


published 22 November 2013

It was in northwest Nigeria at a time when an infection was thought to be witchcraft and women went on to marry, not work, that Fatima found her focus in life. After seeing nurses save her youngest brother’s life, she knew she wanted to work in health.

To attain your dream is the most beautiful thing. You need to be focused and ready to work hard. Find people who will support and encourage you.  Be ready to handle challenges. Find your dream and pursue it. Fatima Muhammad

Fatima Muhammad leads an inspiring team who take great risks to bring healthcare to mothers and babies in Gombe, a state in the troubled northeastern region of Nigeria. Her journey to become a successful programme manager at NGO Society for Family Health Nigeria took unwavering focus, hard work and strong support from her family.


Focus: Marriage or career?

Nurses were viewed as ‘loose women’ and once Fatima had finished primary school her parents were under pressure to get their daughter on the path to marriage.

“I begged my parents: ‘please let me go to school’. My mother said ‘I did not go to school and I want my daughter to go to school.’ I am the first daughter in the family and the role model so if I will do well the others can go too.”

From being the school nurse in secondary school, Fatima went on to graduate as a midwife and later a trainer of midwives. Again, she was under pressure to marry.

“I didn’t want to get married as if I married I may not have been allowed to carry on my work. I was focused on my career and my parents supported me. I thought if I get a bit further along in my career the guy will have to deal with me working!”

Support: Living alone

Living alone as a qualified nurse educator, she attracted a lot of  male attention. When burgled, a neighbour told her it was her fault because she wasn’t married! Luckily her father’s support kept her going.

With a drive to reach more people with quality healthcare and a feeling that the hospital was restricting her from achieving this goal, Fatima trained as a community health officer and public health nurse. She quickly became an accomplished trainer of community health care practitioners and was in demand from NGOs and health programmes to help develop training courses. Following an MA in Population Studies at Exeter University, UK, Fatima returned to Nigeria to put her studies into practice.

Health improvements in Nigeria

There is still much work to be done to improve maternal and newborn health in northeast Nigeria – the area has some of the highest mortality rates in the world and the difficult security situation, resulting in a great shortage of man power, is not making progress easy. However there have been improvements that must be celebrated:

“Years back, a lot of things were attributed to witchcraft. Now people are aware of infection and wrong management of mother and newborns. The people are no richer but more aware.”

Today, advances in knowledge about maternal and newborn healthcare are being brought to the communities and there are more hospitals so people don’t have to walk so far to reach healthcare (although hospitals are still generally ill equipped).

Proud of my achievements

Over the last 10 years Fatima’s leadership in bringing maternal, newborn and reproductive health projects to local communities has contributed to these positive changes.

“I am proud that my parents gave me opportunity to do what I wanted to do and that I did not disappoint them.”

“I am proud to be keeping my marriage going – in my culture being married and have a career is bigger than being a professor. It takes a lot of balancing but I am happy to have reached this far.”

“I am proud that I have in my own little way I have touched lives: the people who I have taught see me as a mentor. Working in public health means I am able to touch the lives of people in Nigeria.”