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Indigenous midwifery students set to redress the balance


Zuleika Henderson
4 May 2010
Health outcomes for Indigenous women during pregnancy and birth could be set to improve with Indigenous students accounting for more than 10 per cent of students enrolled in Southern Cross University’s new Bachelor of Midwifery.

Six of the 50 students enrolled in the new Bachelor of Midwifery at SCU Lakeside at Caloola Drive in Tweed Heads are of Aboriginal descent, with one relocating from Yass near Canberra to undertake the course and others commuting from as far afield as Kempsey and Broken Hill to complete intensive units of study.

Associate Professor of Midwifery Heather Hancock, who recently spent four years in the Northern Territory involved in perinatal primary health in Indigenous communities, said she was delighted with the response to the course.

“We believe this is the largest percentage of Aboriginal students ever seen for any Bachelor of Midwifery course in Australia,” said Professor Hancock.

“This is of great significance because for the last 20 years Aboriginal peri-natal mortality has been well above the average and has not improved.

“One critical way to address this is to educate more Aboriginal women as midwives because research shows that problems are picked up more quickly when women are able to develop close relationships with a midwife they feel they can trust and who understands them.

“They have a greater level of satisfaction with the care they receive, are more likely to keep their appointments and take responsibility for their health and wellbeing, and there is a greater likelihood of improved outcomes for both mother and baby.

“The Indigenous students on the course have been extremely well supported by their midwifery student colleagues and the whole group has a high level of mutuality and reciprocity.”

Would-be midwives previously had to complete a nursing qualification before studying midwifery, but stand-alone courses such as Southern Cross University’s three-year Bachelor of Midwifery have made it possible to enter the midwifery profession directly.

Indigenous student Tanya Bonner said the cultural needs of Aboriginal women were very different to other women.

“There is a distrust of the mainstream hospital system because many Aboriginal women have a fear of prejudice and of being judged so they choose not to go,” said Tanya.

“Many hospitals have an Aboriginal liaison person but sometimes this person is a man, who can’t be involved in women’s business.

“Traditionally Aboriginal women gave birth ‘on country’ with other women around them, and there are important ceremonies that take place outside on country that welcome the child into the world.

“Now, in isolated communities the women are flown to a regional hospital at 36 weeks into their pregnancy and have to stay in accommodation in town without their extended family until they give birth in the nearby hospital.

“The women feel they have no choice, and if babies aren’t born on country they lose some of their link to the land. I hope that if I train as a midwife I will be able to help these women and maybe even be situated in their community so they could have their babies on country if they choose.

“I want to help Aboriginal women to be fully informed, educated and empowered during their pregnancies.

“The federal government is making changes to the health system and to midwifery so I feel it’s a good time to be getting involved – I will have more chance to make a difference.”

Aboriginal student Tamara Jones, who travels from Broken Hill with her four-month-old son Lachlan to attend intensive units of study, said she had tried the traditional pathway of studying to be a nurse first.

“I studied to be a nurse for a year, but I gave up because I wasn’t interested in studying to be a nurse - I always wanted to be a midwife and now I have realised that I can achieve this goal,” said Tamara.

“Maternal peri-natal rates are two to five times higher for Aboriginal women and I see these as deaths that I could help prevent.

“In many rural and remote areas Aboriginal women haven’t had access to antenatal care and education so they will do things like feed their babies powdered milk if they find breast feeding difficult because it’s cheaper and they don’t understand the risks.

“There are higher rates of STIs, low birth weight and later in life it leads to higher rates of preventable chronic diseases. I hope that by making a difference from birth, at the beginning of life, I can also have a roll-on impact for the future health of the whole family.

“I like the way the course is set out - we all learn together and it’s a supportive environment to learn in. I also plan to get involved in mentoring a new Indigenous student next year so I can help other students settle in to the course.”

Photo: Tanya Bonner (far right) and Tamara Jones (front) with baby Lachlan and their fellow Indigenous students studying midwifery at Southern Cross University.