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PWRDF accompanies Indigenous midwives to the UN

Tarcila Rivera Zea, Vice-President of CHIRAPAQ Peru, listens at the UN when PWRDF partners presented on the rights of Indigenous midwives.

May 22, 2018

By Mike Ziemerink

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The rate of maternal and newborn deaths within Indigenous communities around the globe is reported to be significantly higher than the rate for the general population. A 2014 report from the United Nations Fund for Population activities stated that access to midwives could prevent about two thirds of maternal and newborn deaths, however in Indigenous communities where the need is greatest, Indigenous midwife education is rarely recognized and sometimes flatly rejected.

In 2017 PWRDF pledged over $100,000 to a program to extend the knowledge of Indigenous midwives from Canada into Mexico and Peru. Working with partners in Canada (Ryerson University’s Aboriginal Initiatives), Mexico (Kinal Antetik) and Peru (CHIRAPAQ), PWRDF has already helped to bring attention to this issue, including presenting the project at United Nations Headquarters in New York in April 2018.

As part of the application process to speak at the UN Permanent Forum of the Indigenous Peoples (UNPFII), the partners prepared a concept paper that highlighted the importance of Indigenous midwives:

“Midwifery care is a pathway that supports the regeneration of strong Indigenous families by keeping birth close to home by restoring the emphasis on birth as normal, rather than approaching it as an illness in need of treatment. Indigenous midwifery models honour Indigenous people, languages, oral cultures, relationship to the land and spiritual traditions as well as holding birth up as a deeply profound and sacred event.”

Speaking in front of the 17th session of the UNPFII, Cheryl-lee Bourgeois, an Indigenous midwife from the Métis nation in Canada, pleaded with member nations to tackle the oppression that Indigenous midwives face.

“The oppression of Indigenous midwives and the systemic barriers created to prevent Indigenous Peoples from accessing Indigenous midwifery directly contradict articles 24 and 25 of the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples and constitute a threat to cultural survival,” Bourgeois told the Forum.

She explained that the valuable work of Indigenous midwives, who are the preferred care providers to mothers in Indigenous communities, is often undermined and even criminalized. In order to help overcome these barriers for Indigenous midwives and to help bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous maternal health, four recommendations were made to the Nation States at the UN:

  1. Recognize the harmful systemic effects of colonization and create measurable goals to identify and close gaps in reproductive health inequalities among Indigenous communities.
  2. Support Indigenous self-determination in all aspects of reproductive health, including education, community regulation, practice, and autonomous associations of indigenous-midwives.
  3. Eliminate the criminalization of Indigenous midwives and make the necessary legislative and regulatory reforms that legitimize Indigenous midwives, recognized by their community as providers of health services and guardians of indigenous knowledge.
  4. Ensure the support and resources of the State for the education of new traditional Indigenous midwives, through multiple education channels, including learning and oral transmission of knowledge.

These recommendations were included in the final report of the 17th Session of the UNPFII. “This is an excellent outcome, as Nation States members of United Nations would have these recommendations at their disposal for any policy decision with mechanisms to enforce and ensure an end to the criminalization of indigenous midwives and ways to support this ancestral practice,” said José Zarate, the Indigenous Communities and Latin American-Caribbean Development Program Coordinator for PWRDF.

Following the recommendations Bourgeois boldly reminded the UNPFII that there had already been recommendations related to Indigenous midwifery in the in the third, fifth and ninth sessions that have not been implemented. She called for swift action by member states to help protect indigenous mothers, children and culture.

PWRDF and the three partners have been thrilled with the success that the presentation at the United Nations has contributed to the project.

(left to right) Lina Berrio from Kinal in Mexico, Monica McKay from Ryerson, Cheryl-lee Bourgeois, Patricia Yllescas from Kinal and Jose Zarate at the UN.

Zarate said the experience at the UN has directly benefited the project. “Each partner individually was able to share this successful result told by such press coverage while they were at the UN. This is crucial for building profile and sharing with allies and their own communities.”

“I feel very fortunate, honoured and pleased to be involved with these three partners doing fantastic work. They have demonstrated their hard work, perseverance, passion and leadership.”