12/09/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Farming While Pregnant in Tanzania

Across Tanzania's multicultural landscape of an estimated 47 million people and more than one hundred ethnic groups, women, wives in particular, play major roles in sustaining family livelihoods. With more than 75 percent of the population living in rural areas, farming comprises up to 75 percent of Tanzania's workforce and farming while heavily pregnant has lead to considerable cause for alarm in the realm of maternal health.

"Pregnant women can sometimes work in the farm up until they are eight months pregnant," says Frederica Ndokole, a community health worker in Maguliwa village in Iringa, Tanzania. For thirteen years as the village health provider, she has seen dozens of pregnant women performing strenuous labor on their farm plots, sometimes up to 10 hours a day.

"I don't recommend that," she says. "I tell them to stop going to the farm when they reach seven months but it is hard to get them to stop because in the community women do most of the work compared to men.

Cultural norms stipulating gender roles through generations are expressed with an underlying expectation that "women will work harder and longer hours than men as well as serve men," according to academicians whose research outcomes, published in the 2010 African Sociological Review, were consistent with previous observations on the division of household labor in Tanzania.

Even Tanzania's former president and "father of the nation," Julius Nyerere stated in his landmark Arusha Declaration of 1967:

It would be appropriate to ask our farmers, especially men, how many hours a week or how many weeks in a year they work. The truth is that women in the villages work very hard, 12-15 hours in a day. They even work on Sundays and public holidays. Women who live in the villages work harder than everybody else in Tanzania. But men who live in the villages are on leave for half of their lives.

But the links between farming while pregnant and maternal health should be explored, considering that maternal mortality and maternal anemia are not uncommon in this developing east African nation.

"Pregnancy and childbearing continue to take a great toll on women in this country," reads a 2004 report on women's health as part of a demographic survey conducted by the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics. The report reveals that nearly half of Tanzania women suffer from anemia, which may be a contributing cause to maternal mortality, spontaneous abortions, low birth weight and premature births.

Ample medical research shows that pregnant women are often more susceptible to anemia than non-pregnant women. Add strenuous farm work to the context and this may make for less than ideal circumstances.

Culture notwithstanding, maternal health, or the lack thereof, has contributed to high rates of deaths in a country where women on average give birth to five children. The growth rate presently stands at an estimated 2.7 percent. 13,000 women die each year from pregnancy related causes, reports Ester Mwaikambo, a medical doctor and professor of pediatrics and child health at The Hubert Kaiurki Memorial University in Dar es Salaam.

In Maguliwa, a pack of mothers stand with their babies in line before Ndokole, waiting to reach the health worker who will weigh the babies and check the health of the mothers. Ndokole says she has noticed improvements in child and maternal health over the last decade as more people have access to medications and information about basic health is spreading throughout local communities.

But she says malnutrition is still a problem, among children and pregnant women. She says she often sees pregnant women exhibiting signs of stress when coming back from farming.

Esther Masonda, 25, and her friend Agnes Joseph, 30, both labored on their farms nearly up to eight months during their pregnancies. They say, they not have any health issues that they were aware of but they know of other women farmers who died of pregnancy-related complications.

"Pregnant women are just working too long here," says 39-year-old Harriet Kivilege, a community leader in Maguliwa working with the One Acre Fund. "Women make the money in our culture."

Kivilege says this is something that she cannot change but says she intends to do her part in encouraging pregnant women to decrease farm labor in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

Chika Oduah traveled to Tanzania as a 2013 International Reporting Project fellow.