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Illustrated portrait of Ashley Muteti Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Ashley Muteti transformed her loss into social change in Kenya

Named after her daughter, the Zuri Nzilani Foundation hopes to end maternal mortality.

Rachel DuRose is a Future Perfect fellow, covering climate change, housing, mental health, and more. Rachel previously wrote about the workplace, hiring, and executive leadership for Business Insider.

Every year, the pregnancy condition preeclampsia kills 76,000 mothers and 500,000 infants.

Ashley Muteti, a public relations specialist in Kenya, survived the condition — a hypertensive disorder that causes high blood pressure — twice in her 20s. Preeclampsia is one of the leading causes of maternal death globally, capable of causing internal bleeding, seizures, stroke, premature birth, and more. In Kenya, 530 women died per 100,000 live births in 2020.

When she was just 25 years old, Muteti was diagnosed with preeclampsia after experiencing extreme pain during her seventh month of pregnancy. She was carrying her first child, a daughter named Zuri. Due to her high blood pressure, Muteti was admitted to the hospital for a month and gave birth prematurely on March 8, 2018.

While Muteti survived the pregnancy, Zuri passed away due to necrotizing enterocolitis (a condition where intestinal tissue dies) 49 days after her birth. A year later, in her daughter’s memory, Muteti started the Nairobi-based organization Zuri Nzilani Foundation, which aims to educate pregnant women and health care providers on hypertension in pregnancy, and to advocate for women with these complications at the local and national level.

“Preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders in pregnancy is a fairly new subject here in my country, Kenya,” Muteti said in a video for the Preeclampsia Foundation. “Not much education has been created about the condition and that’s where here at Zuri Nzilani Foundation, we are very keen to create awareness about hypertensive disorders in pregnancy. This is because most of the women learn about it when it’s already too late.”

Since its inception, the foundation has created support groups for women and their families, run educational campaigns, and lobbied for better health care for mothers in Kenya.

Muteti helped convene the first pan-African conference on hypertension in pregnancy in 2021 and plans an annual conference on hypertensive disorders in pregnancy, which brings together medical practitioners, gynecologists, health care workers, nurses, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age to raise awareness on hypertension disorders.

With only 500 OB-GYNs across the entire country of 54 million people, childbirth remains far too dangerous. The lack of specialized health care workers in Kenya is especially concerning for women who may have hypertensive disorders or pregnancy-related diabetes (which up to 18 out of 100 pregnant people in the country will experience). The signs of these can be similar to those of normal pregnancy, including swelling, headaches, and nausea. Without adequate neonatal care (at least eight doctor visits according to the WHO), these conditions can go undetected and worsen, Muteti told Vox in March.

This is why outside of its national advocacy work, the Zuri Nzilani Foundation also creates social support groups for pregnant mothers — groups that can be the difference between life and death. In September 2022, a foundation support group member was sent home from a hospital despite experiencing high blood pressure. Her fellow group members mobilized to quickly find a gynecologist who could refer her to a facility. The woman gave birth shortly thereafter, saving her and her baby’s life.

In a culture where pregnancy loss is stigmatized, speaking about it openly is another way Muteti is changing outcomes for pregnant women across Kenya. “People think because you’re going through a particular condition in pregnancy, you have been bewitched or someone has looked at you with an evil eye,” Muteti previously told Vox. “Women in our support groups actually lose their husbands and lose their marriages because they’ve gone through multiple pregnancy losses.”

Muteti says the Zuri Nzilani Foundation’s work is done both in the name of her daughter and in the name of ensuring “that no mother will die as a result of bringing life into this world.”

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