Global health and rights for women in pregnancy and childbirth conference

By Victoria Coathup and Jo Taylor

Rarely in our profession as healthcare workers are we given the opportunity to examine our practice and compare it to that of our peers in far-flung parts of the world. One such opportunity came at the recent conference: Global Health and Rights for women during pregnancy and childbirth, hosted at Marston Road on Saturday 16th November 2013 by Ethel Burns and Victoria Coathup, members of Oxford Brookes University Women’s Health Research Group.

The audience, not limited to just midwives and students, was witness to a programme of speakers whose unique perspective on global maternity services made for a scintillating conference. Included among the speakers were: Brigid McConville of the White Ribbon Alliance; Helen Mountfield of Birthrights; Alison Byrne, specialist FGM midwife; Stephen Allen, Professor in Paediatrics and International Health (Swansea University), and; Clara Calvert, PhD student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

After a congenial welcome from senior midwifery lecturer Ethel Burns, proceedings began with Brigid McConville. As Creative Director of the White Ribbon Alliance, a writer and a former television documentary-producer, Brigid’s is a fascinating voice amidst the clutter of organisations operating in the developing world. Her description of the origins of the WRA proved to be the perfect introduction to her account of the organisation’s current campaigns (one such discussed was Respectful Maternity Care); and served as a reminder that WRA’s campaigning work is not limited to the Third World and has a well-deserved home in our hospitals. One delegate reported “Excellent video from White Ribbon Alliance to start the day and to set the tone”.



Helen Mountfield QC and barrister at the Matrix Chambers (home to Cherie Booth CBE, QC) spoke next and lead a passionate discussion about some of the more divisive issues facing midwives today. As a Trustee at Birthrights, an organisation committed to improving women’s experience of childbirth, much of Helen’s work involves advocating for women who feel their rights have been breached during childbirth. Vigorous discussions were launched after Helen posed a series of uncomfortable scenarios involving women whose decisions might occasionally be at odds with those caring for her. “It was really good to know about women’s legal right in childbirth …. That they do not have to do anything that they do not want to, even if it goes against hospital policy …. I will be informing pregnant women of this” said one midwife. All in all, Helen’s interactive session was an eye opening and stimulating, leaving many of us to continue the discussion during the lunch which followed.

Alison Bryne, a specialist midwife from Birmingham, had the daunting task of guiding the audience into the afternoon sessions and succeeded, continuing the morning’s fascinating tone by introducing the topic of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). One of many comments indicated that this was “An emotive topic that doesn’t get enough coverage”. One jaw-dropping video (demonstrating FGM) later, and lunch was far from the audience’s mind. Discussion began in earnest and Alison spoke about the importance of midwife-led initiatives, like her FGM clinic in Birmingham. Alison’s revelations were an unparalleled insight into the devastating impact FGM can have on a woman’s reproductive health. Alison was quick to reassure the audience that all is not lost, and the session was bookended by another video, this time about the reconstructive surgery now available for women who have undergone FGM.

Dr Steve Allen, a Consultant Paediatrician and Professor of International Health at Swansea University continued the afternoon session with an amazing description of ‘Jugaad’ medical innovation, a practice of “improvised arrangement due to a lack of resources” whereby ordinary materials are cleverly re-invented and used in resource-poor health settings. The audience was tickled by pictures of flipflop neck braces and bicycle water mills. Many of us were left wondering how we could match such frugal innovations and reflecting on the waste we are responsible for within the NHS. One delegate’s take home message was “… that we can use ideas from developing countries to help solve resource issues in the UK”.

The day ended with Clara Calvert, a PhD student from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who showed many of us students how a REAL researcher does it! With her step-by-step description of her research on HIV and maternal mortality and morbidity, the audience was left with no doubt about the changing face of the disease in Africa and the incredible benefits of good-quality outreach programmes. Clara ended the session with an “Interesting discussion on confounders in research” and how the findings of her research might influence midwifery practice in the future.

Feeling exhausted but inspired and stimulated, the audience was bid farewell by Ethel who thanked the speakers and contributors who helped made the day such a success as the evaluation showed:
“Price was really affordable for a student”
“A well thought out study day on relevant global health and human rights for women. Thank you!”



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