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Open Access Research article

The potential role of mother-in-law in prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV: a mixed methods study from the Kilimanjaro region, northern Tanzania

Eli Fjeld Falnes1*, Karen Marie Moland2, Thorkild Tylleskär1, Marina Manuela de Paoli3, Sebalda Charles Leshabari4 and Ingunn MS Engebretsen1

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for International Health, University of Bergen, Postboks 7804, N-5020 Bergen, Norway

2 Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, Bergen University College, Postboks 7030, N-5020 Bergen, Norway

3 Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies, Postboks 2947, Tøyen, N-0608 Oslo, Norway

4 School of Nursing, Muhimbili University College of Health Sciences, PO Box 65001, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:551  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-551

Published: 12 July 2011



In the Kilimanjaro region the mother-in-law has traditionally had an important role in matters related to reproduction and childcare. The aim of this study was to explore the role of the mothers-in-law in prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) service utilization and adherence to infant feeding guidelines.


The study was conducted during 2007-2008 in rural and urban areas of Moshi district in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. Mixed methods were used and included focus group discussions with mothers-in-law, mothers and fathers; in-depth interviews with mothers-in-law, mothers, fathers and HIV-infected mothers, and a survey of 446 mothers bringing their four-week-old infants for immunisation at five reproductive and child health clinics.


The study demonstrated that the mother-in-law saw herself as responsible for family health issues in general and child care in particular. However she received limited trust, and couples, in particular couples living in urban areas, tended to exclude her from decisions related to childbearing and infant feeding. Mothers-in-law expected their daughters-in-law to breastfeed in a customary manner and were generally negative towards the infant feeding methods recommended for HIV-infected mothers; exclusive replacement feeding and exclusive breastfeeding.


Decreasing influence of the mother-in-law and increasing prominence of the conjugal couples in issues related to reproduction and child care, reinforce the importance of continued efforts to include male partners in the PMTCT programme. The potential for involving mothers-in-law in the infant feeding component, where she still has influence in some areas, should be further explored.