This year Bristol University Press has been supporting Project MAMA, a local organisation providing support to displaced women and birthing people around pregnancy, labour, birth and early parenting, through their Mother Companions project and MAMAhub, while advocating for systemic change to improve the lives of the people they support.
Project MAMA was set up in 2018 as an immediate response to the lack of essential support for migrant women during a crucial time in their lives: the birth of their babies. Preparing for birth and life with a new baby can be a daunting and tough time for anyone, let alone with the additional challenges of outstanding immigration concerns, acclimatising to a new country or city, and navigating complexities amid pre-existing mental health issues or recovering from trauma.
While offering support to survivors of trafficking, Fiona Mann came across several women who didn’t have sufficient support and were experiencing barriers to accessing perinatal health services, such as lack of interpreters and insufficient cultural awareness. This experience led her to gather around midwives, activists and birth workers and form Project MAMA, a solidarity network for women and their children, which established itself as a spearhead organisation both in the birth and refugee sector in Bristol.
Supporting mothers: ‘So no mama births alone’.
Project MAMA provides one-to-one support during pregnancy, labour, birth and the first few weeks of parenting through its Mother Companions project, as well as ongoing peer support through MAMAHub, a drop-in community hub where those supported by the project and their babies can come together, share a meal, do some gentle trauma-informed yoga and strengthen their community links.
Makena* accessed the support from Project MAMA and shared her experience: “My Project MAMA Mother Companions were like my mother and my sister; I feel like I can speak to them freely. I talk to them like my family. They really supported me and helped to understand what choices I had around birth.”
A priority for Mother Companions is to ensure that the pregnant people they support remain in control of their own decisions and are able to provide well-informed consent regarding their health and that of their babies. This is hugely integral to positive birth outcomes and perinatal mental health.
“My Mother Companions helped with explaining things about the hospital, for example, and if you would like to do an epidural what will happen then. They explained my choices very well as I didn’t know about my options before. I felt very, very confident with voicing my choices to medical staff,” explains Sara*, who was also supported by Project MAMA during the birth of her baby.
Mother Companions, as their name suggests, also offer companionship during labour, birth and the first weeks of parenting, which is crucial for new parents whose community and family links might have been uprooted. Arwa* is a first-time mum and she valued having follow-up contact with her Mother Companions after the birth of her son: “Every day they messaged me and called me. They never said: ‘we’ll leave you alone’.”
Navigating the system
Displaced people, particularly if pregnant, can have difficulties accessing healthcare in the UK. Many of the barriers stem from archaic and institutional racisms which pervade institutions, including the NHS. Alarmingly, women from migrant backgrounds are four times more likely to suffer postnatal depression than their UK-born peers. Their babies are more likely to be stillborn or born prematurely, to have a low birth weight or to have birth defects. Maternal mortality in this specific demographic is also disproportionally high.
In addition, as a direct result of forced migration and the highly vulnerable situations women subsequently find themselves in, two thirds of women refugees in the UK are the survivors of sexual assault, of which pregnancy can be a consequence (Reproductive Health Matters, 2015).
Project MAMA recognises the multiple challenges refugee women have endured on their journey to safety and work reverently to ensure the people they assist have equal access to healthcare and the support they need when they most need it. On this subject, Fiona Mann adds: “Through supporting women and listening to their experiences, we have gained expertise and knowledge of how exactly trauma can impact a person’s experience not only in the birth room, but in the time before and after giving birth.”
Parenting in a hostile environment
The support accessed through Project MAMA becomes crucial in the current political climate. Many mothers-to-be supported by the charity have already faced the ‘triple arrow’ of trauma: being displaced from their country of origin, the dangerous journey they have made to find safety, and arrival in an already hostile immigration system in the UK. For people seeking asylum who may have experienced torture or trauma, mental health issues are already exceptionally high, even before they reach countries of resettlement.
The aptly named ‘Hostile Environment’ adopted by the government causes pregnant people to be burdened with immigration anxieties which undoubtedly have detrimental ramifications on health and wellbeing outcomes. Regarding the effects of these policies on the clients the charity supports, Fiona Mann says: “We are seeing an increased number of newly arrived women seeking safety in the UK, already heavily pregnant, afraid to access maternity care lest they be charged vast amounts of money or even deported. We commonly see a cascade of birth interventions sky-high, compared to British-born women.”
The charity, which is part of Bristol Refugee and Asylum Seeker Partnership (BRASP), campaigns alongside other local organisations and agencies to improve the provision of services for asylum seekers and other migrants, as well as to put an end to the inhumane policies the hostile environment imposes on people seeking safety and sanctuary.
Mann adds: “Mothers are stifled with fear, adrenaline and uncertainty, concerned about whether they’re likely to be housed or detained after leaving hospital. The irony of a new mother holding a new life in her arms with little choice or understanding of the direction of her own is not lost.”
To find out more about Project MAMA and the vital support they provide, visit http://www.projectmama.org.
*Names have been changed to preserve people’s identities.
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