Helping Women on the Journey to Motherhood
3 July 2017 at 8:45 am
Olivia Myeza has recently taken up the post of CEO at Birth for HumanKIND, a not-for-profit organisation that supports women experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage on their journey to motherhood. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Myeza, who is originally from Melbourne, is a wearer of many hats – wife, mother, sister, leader, singer.
After leaving the world of corporate PR she spent a decade living and working in South Africa at the coalface of community development and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
During her time there, she was CEO of Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust, a not-for-profit organisation that responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the region, where one in three people were HIV positive.
Prior to this her roles in South Africa included resource mobilisation manager for GOLD Peer Education Development Agency; fundraising and marketing manager for McCord Hospital and South Africa director for The Oaktree Foundation.
Myeza has now relocated back to Melbourne with her family to take on the role of CEO at Birth for HumanKIND.
The Melbourne-based not-for-profit organisation provides women in need – often young mums and recently arrived women with refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds – with free support and education during pregnancy, birth and early parenting.
In this week’s Changemaker Myeza talks about her work in South Africa, how a musical collaboration led to her marrying into a black Zulu community and how birth unites us across borders, cultures, incomes, languages and race.
I had worked in the corporate PR sector and got really tired of making rich men richer, to speak frankly. That just isn’t something that motivates my heart much.
Once I got connected with the not-for-profit sector and started doing volunteer work for Oaktree Foundation, first here in Melbourne and then in South Africa, my heart and soul came alive.
For three years in Australia and then two years full-time in South Africa I was an unpaid volunteer, raising funds to cover my living costs. It was really liberating to be able to do something for reasons other than money, but unfortunately it wasn’t sustainable.
It’s amazing to put your skills, time and energy into something that helps others and makes a difference in our world – it’s a million times more inspiring and motivating than making the richer richer, and I found endless passion and energy for it. I’ve never looked back and can’t imagine, at this point, leaving the not-for-profit sector.
You’ve returned to Melbourne after 10 years in South Africa. Can you tell us about your work there?
It was through a volunteer role for The Oaktree Foundation that I first visited South Africa in 2005 and I completely fell in love with the country. I had lost my mum to cancer as a teenager and always felt pretty sorry for myself about that, but when I got to South Africa and learnt that there are 4 million orphans in the country, mostly orphaned due to their parents dying of HIV/AIDS, I realised I was the lucky one. I had support, I never wondered where my next meal was coming from, I had access to counselling – these kids don’t have any of that and so many of them are growing up in child-headed households without a safe roof over their head, without enough food and without their parents.
A good friend had told me that “with privilege comes great responsibility”, so I followed my heart and committed to doing whatever I could in the fight against poverty, HIV/AIDS and the orphan crisis in South Africa.
And that led you to work at the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust?
Yes, I led a team of 160 staff and 50 volunteers to implement prevention, care, community outreach and economic empowerment projects that impacted thousands in semi-rural, poverty-torn communities – the majority of them women and children.
It wasn’t just work that kept you in South Africa, was it?
Not quite. On my first visit to South Africa in 2005 I met an amazing Zulu choir and ended up collaborating with them and recording two albums with them and a few other Australian musicians.
It was through the music collaboration projects that I met the man who is now my husband. I married into a black Zulu community and together we have three beautiful children, Asanda, 8, Lwazi, 4, and Eli,1, who represent what’s called “the rainbow nation” of South Africa.
What was it like giving birth in South Africa?
I was lucky enough to have natural, doula-assisted births in a private hospital, which is not the case for the vast majority of women in South Africa. I witnessed, on too many occasions, the dire consequences of women not being supported through this important time of their lives. I will never forget crying with a mother who gave birth to her stillborn baby in an ambulance on the way to the hospital after having waited hours at a local clinic before any help arrived.
After 10 years at the coalface of the fight against HIV/AIDS, you’ve moved back to Australia. Tell us about your new role as CEO of Birth HumanKIND.
The role with Birth for HumanKIND jumped out at me as I saw it as a chance to continue using my skills to make a difference to society within a not-for-profit organisation with which I have shared values. Birth for HumanKIND runs a bunch of amazing birth support and education programs that help to catch women before they fall through the cracks in our maternal health system.
The majority of the women we work with are from migrant, refugee or asylum seeker backgrounds, recently arrived in Australia, don’t speak English fluently and don’t have a network of family and friends to support them. We also work with many young mums (under 25) and women experiencing domestic violence or homelessness. Broadly speaking, our clients are pregnant women who are experiencing socio-economic disadvantage – which is obviously something that is close to my heart.
Birth unites us across borders, cultures, incomes, languages and races – it’s the one thing that we have all been through and have in common – we have all been born. And despite us knowing how important birth is, there are so many women in this world, and indeed right here in Melbourne and in Australia, who are walking alone on their journey to motherhood, without the information they need and the support they deserve. We are committed to putting the kindness back into birth culture and I’m really excited to have been given the opportunity to lead and build the HumanKIND team as we work towards realising our vision.
What is the ultimate goal through your work?
My ultimate goal is to use my skills and gifts, and make use of the great education I was privileged to have received and the benefits of having been born in a developed country, to help those who are less fortunate.
To see organisations growing in their impact and their sustainability, to see team members operating in their passions and giftings, and to see lives being improved through powerful programs that have deep and lasting impact on people and communities in need.
How do you find time for yourself?
Can I pass on this one? This is admittedly a work in progress and not something that I’m currently the best role model for. Being a working mother of three kids, time for myself is something that doesn’t come easily. In theory I do one yoga class a week for me time, but in reality this hasn’t happened for the past year since I had my last born – note to self: must find local yoga studio and commence classes!
I do enjoy hot baths at home after the kids are in bed and the house is relatively clean – I set it up for full relaxation vibes, play quite relaxing music, light candles and use lots of bath salts. I really love my baths and try to get at least one per week.
I also love chilling out with my husband after the day is over and watching light-hearted series that allow for escapism and comedy – such as Friends, that’s our favourite. We have been through a really busy period having had a baby, moved continents, changes jobs, schools and houses and so on all in the past 12 months.
Once the dust settles, I will get back into a stricter routine of “me time” as it’s so important and it’s not something that anyone other than you can do for yourself. So watch this space!