Background: Social accountability mechanisms have been highlighted as making a contribution to improving maternal health outcomes and reducing inequities. But there is a lack of evidence on how they contribute to such improvements. This study aims to explore social accountability mechanisms in selected districts of the Indian state of Gujarat in relation to maternal health, the factors they address and how the results of these mechanisms are perceived.
Methods: We conducted qualitative research through in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with actors of civil society and government health system. Data were analyzed using a framework of social determinants of maternal health in terms of structural and intermediary determinants.
Results: There are social accountability mechanisms in the government and civil society in terms of structure and activities. But those that were perceived to influence maternal health were mainly from civil society, particularly women's groups, community monitoring and a maternal death review. The social accountability mechanisms influenced structural determinants - governance, policy, health beliefs, women's status, and intermediary determinants - social capital, maternal healthcare behavior, and availability, accessibility and the quality of the health service delivery system. These further positively influenced the increased use of maternal health services. The social accountability mechanisms, through the process of information, dialogue and negotiation, particularly empowered women to make collective demands of the health system and brought about changed perceptions of women among actors in the system. It ultimately improved relations between women and the health system in terms of trust and collaboration, and generated appropriate responses from the health system to meeting women's groups' demands.
Conclusion: Social accountability mechanisms in Gujarat were perceived to improve interaction between communities and the health system and contribute to improvements in access to and use of maternal health services. The influence of social accountability appeared to be limited to the local/district level and there was lack of capacity and ownership of the government structures.
Keywords: Gujarat; Health system; India; Maternal health; Qualitative; Social accountability.