‘Birthing on Country’ is an international movement with the overall aim to have maternity care services in remote communities for Aboriginal mothers. And in Galiwinku, Northern Territory, women are fighting for it.
Mothers giving birth on the land of their ancestors to ensure a spiritual connection between the baby and the land is a significant cultural practice in Aboriginal communities.
It’s believed that when this custom isn’t followed, it breaks the child’s spiritual connection to the community and raises emotional and spiritual issues, not just for the child but also for the mother.
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But many Aboriginal women are often forced to travel hundreds of kilometres to give birth due to a lack of birthing services in remote communities, and they are fighting for it.
“It is the core of who we are as first nations people, our connection to country, to place, to plant life and our animal life; it is what it means to be a first nations person,” says Associate Professor Yvette Rowe, Co-Director of Molly Wardaguga Research Centre at the Charles Darwin University.
“When we think about birthing on country, we know that First Nations people have never given up our sovereignty to land. So it is always First Nations land and so that ceremonial and important birthing on country is our fundamental spiritual practice of coming into this world, being connected to a community, being part of a storyline or songline.”
Birthing on country is not only an important cultural practice, but it is also about being practical.
Research shows a reduction in pre-term births when the maternity health system is redesigned specifically to meet the needs of Indigenous women.
Pregnant women from the remote community of Galiwinku would normally be required to travel hundreds of kilometres to have their babies delivered at either Darwin or Nhulunbuy on the mainland.
Associate Professor Aunty Elaine Lawurrpa Maypilama says there are many cultural barriers women face when travelling to the mainland to have their babies off country.
“English is not their first language and it is sometimes their fifth language. I just want to talk about how difficult and how hard it is for young people when they go to a hospital, like in Darwin or Nhulunbuy.
“It is hard for them when the nurse or midwife talk to them and it’s hard for them to understand the language the midwives use and we are trying to develop a program on country for Yolngu doula and Yolngu midwife on country.”
Auntie Lawurrpa Maypilama has done extensive research on the need for locally-based services tailored for Aboriginal mothers and incorporating local traditions in it. She says this can provide an extremely positive experience for women of Galiwinku.
Dr Sarah Ireland, a midwife and researcher at of Molly Wardaguga Research Centre says that the current health system does not do a very good job of making space for Yolngu people in the care of pregnant women.
“We found from research that we need to re-design maternity health service and part of that is investing in the Frist Nations workforce. We are very lucky to collaborate with Australian Doula College who provided accredited training for our doulas and that was complemented in quite a unique way with a Yolngu curriculum that was delivered by knowledge authorities in the community.”
But is the birthing centre for Galiwinku Elcho Island any closer to reality?
Recently, funding was made available for consultation across the community about the birthing centre.
While Professor Sue Kildea from the Charles Darwin University doesn’t think this is something that is going to happen immediately, she remains optimistic about the prospects.
“This a fight that has been fought for a very long time and with these sort of things you need the planets to align and we could be coming close in Australia to those planets aligning to be able to help progress the Galiwinku community to reach what they want to and to reach their goals.”
And the planets are beginning to align, she says.
“You’ve got Miwatj Health Board which are overseeing the East Arnhem Land health. We have already presented to the board and they are very, very supportive; we have got key people in Northern Territory health that have expressed support for it. We have applied for quite a lot of funding and if we get any of the funding that will really help.”
However, Professor Kildea says it’s the people of the Galiwinku community who are key to the success of this project.
“We have met these people and they are extraordinarily strong. They know that the best way to strengthen the outcome for their mothers and their babies is to work together side by side; get that knowledge back so that instead of doing things the western way, we are incorporating the Indigenous way of doing things as well.”