• Sophie Habel gave birth to her first child through a culturally safe birthing program. (Contributed)Source: Contributed
Hundreds of Aboriginal women across the east coast have had access to culturally safe maternity care thanks to some dedicated midwives.
Madeline Hayman-Reber

The Point
4 Oct 2018 - 5:34 PM  UPDATED 5 Oct 2018 - 11:08 PM

When Wathaurong woman Sophie Habel became pregnant with her first child, she knew that she wanted the most culturally safe care available to her.

After visiting a regular GP, she and her partner Scott Mitchell decided to tell their families when she was about 10 weeks pregnant.

Her mum told her to go to the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS).

"I said I just don't feel comfortable yet - not with the care that we were receiving but what we could end up doing and what our space was going to be, and my mum just said you need to contact VAHS," Ms Habel told NITV News.

A partnership between La Trobe University, the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) and four hospitals - Melbourne's Royal Women's Hospital, Mercy Hospital for Women, Sunshine Hospital, and Goulburn Valley Health in Shepparton – has seen the implementation of a culturally safe birthing program for all mothers expecting an Aboriginal child.

"It puts your feet back on the ground, and makes it a less technical and a less clinical experience."

It has two names - 'Baggarrook Yurrongi', meaning 'woman's journey' in Woiwurrung, or 'Nuraagh Manma Buliana' meaning 'all of us working together for pregnancy' in Yorta Yorta.

"Basically the pregnant woman and her family are cared for by a main midwife, and they get to know each other," La Trobe University's Professor Helen McLachlan said.

"The midwife does the checkups. There's this relationship that develops over the pregnancy. And then the midwife is on call, so if there's any issues during the pregnancy or when she goes into labour, she calls her midwife and the midwife will come in and care for her during labour and birth.

"And that same midwife will then provide some care after the birth to help the woman with her feeding a baby and settling the baby and so forth."

After contacting VAHS, Ms Habel was paired with a midwife named Cindy who was with her throughout her entire pregnancy. Months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, who she and Mr Mitchell have named Oscar.

"I think it's important for everybody. No matter your background, I think it's important for every person to feel safe under any kind of care capacity," Ms Habel said.

"It reduces our inhibition and allows us to go back to birthing really how we were [thousands of years] ago. It puts your feet back on the ground, and makes it a less technical and a less clinical experience."

More than 200 women have participated in the program over the past 18 months, and it is less than halfway through its allocated five years.

Student midwives hoping to improve birthing on country options
Geographical isolation is not only a major challenge for Indigenous women giving birth, but also for those studying to be their midwives.

"I'm hearing really positive stories from the women. They're talking about feeling safe. They're talking about feeling special," La Trobe researcher and Noongar woman Pam McCalman said.

"Women are talking to me about perhaps maybe something hasn't quite gone to plan for them in terms of the pregnancy or the birth, but they talk about having the midwife that they know and trust next to them, and that's kind of made things a little bit more manageable for them."

Professor McLachlan said she hopes it will be rolled out to other areas in Victoria with high Indigenous populations so that women have the option of giving birth on their own country.

But the program isn't the first of it's kind. The Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Midwives - better known as CATSINaM - has been running its Birthing on Country program for the past four years in New South Wales and Queensland.

Right now they are struggling to cope with the high demand.

"I do believe that if we had more birthing on country services, that Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander women would use them," CATSINaM CEO Janine Mohamed said.

"And I know that because the birthing on country is a long held aspiration for our women. At the moment what services we do have far outweighs the need.

"Not only that, it's these services are in places of high demand, but throughout the country that needs to be translated."

They've been working hard to lobby the federal government to implement birthing on country into legislation, and to improve their services.

"We met with the parliamentary friends of Close the Gap and we addressed them regarding birthing on country," Ms Mohamed said.

"One of the calls for CATSINaM made out to the parliamentary committee was around having a senate select inquiry into birthing on country really looking at what are the barriers to having birthing on country, which is a restorative practice, because we've had our birthing on country for 60,000 years here."

There's hope the programs will be able to extend their reach, as well as engage more Indigenous nurses and midwives.

"Women are talking about feeling more trusting of the system, feeling more safe, and they're turning up earlier for check ups, and there's basically some really positive feedback from the women and from the workers that we're working with," Professor McLachlan said.

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