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Fighting for a better maternal health system

9 November 2020 at 8:13 am
Maggie Coggan
As the CEO of Birth for Humankind, Ruth Dearnley is using her passion for and expertise in social justice to help all women through pregnancy, not just the ones who have access to proper care. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 9 November 2020 at 8:13 am


Fighting for a better maternal health system
9 November 2020 at 8:13 am

As the CEO of Birth for Humankind, Ruth Dearnley is using her passion for and expertise in social justice to help all women through pregnancy, not just the ones who have access to proper care. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Despite Australia having one of the best public health systems in the world, just eight per cent of pregnant women have the same health specialist to guide them through pregnancy. 

Women from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, women experiencing homelessness, and women with issues related to mental health, substance misuse and/or with a history of trauma and abuse, face significant disparities in maternal health outcomes compared to the rest of the population.

That’s where Birth for Humankind comes in, providing educational resources, advocacy services and non-clinical support programs to help women getting left behind.   

Joining the organisation two years ago, Dearnley is drawing on over 15 years of leadership experience across the international NGO, communications and advocacy sectors to bring together experts to create systemic, collaborative change. 

Complementing her work at Birth for Humankind, Dearnley also runs Influence Global – a collaborative social change consultancy – to support purpose-driven organisations to achieve their social change outcomes. 

In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses why it’s ok to not have all the answers, advice that’s steered her through tough times, and the importance of listening to all perspectives.   

How did you get involved with Birth for Humankind?  

When I was alerted to the role of CEO at Birth for Humankind there was a heavy focus on looking at how to take a start-up organisation, which was around four years old at the time, to its next stage of development. The organisation really appealed to me not only because it has such a strong evidence base of proven success from its programs, but also [because of] its research around how social support during pregnancy has a significant impact on improved maternal and child health outcomes, especially for women experiencing disadvantage during pregnancy, birth and parenting.

On a very personal level, I also enjoy working with organisations I feel like I can learn from, but can also use my skills to complement what the organisation needs at the time. The flexibility to work with numerous organisations at the same time has always appealed to me because there is so much learning that can happen across the NFP sector. So having the opportunity to do a part-time role with Birth for Humankind and still run my consultancy firm, Influence Global, has really enhanced both roles and all the organisations I’m connected with because there is so much crossover and opportunity for collaboration and learning from all the complementary sectors.

What are some of the main things you’re trying to achieve while you’re the CEO of Birth for Humankind?

Birth for Humankind exists to achieve equitable maternal health and wellbeing, and to advocate for more and provide more respectful maternity care. And by that, we very much adhere to the World Health Organisation’s definition of respect for maternity care, where every woman has the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

While we benefit from a first class public health system in Australia, I see an alarming number of women that don’t have equitable access to that system. Only around eight per cent of women in Australia see the same health professionals throughout the whole pregnancy. This means they can get mixed messages and they don’t build up that trusted and respected relationship with a healthcare professional. For people facing barriers to accessing the health system, such as language difficulties, a lack of understanding of their rights or how to navigate the health system, or newly arrived migrants, or if they’re experiencing homelessness, family violence, alcohol and drug abuse, they are less likely to receive proper care during their pregnancy. 

A big focus of my role as CEO is raising awareness around the need for continuity of care and continuity of support which we provide through our programs. The second priority is building partnerships and relationships with the mainstream public health system. Around 70 per cent of the referrals into our programs come from social workers and midwives working in public maternity hospitals. They understand the need for the complementary community programs we offer, but it’s about how we then make sure that is sustained at management level in clear partnership. 

What have your major learnings been throughout your career?

I’m constantly learning, and I think if you’re not that’s a problem. I don’t come from a clinical maternal health background, but benefit from incredibly talented colleagues and our volunteers that do come from maternity support, social work, and midwifery backgrounds. Learning from them helps me understand the barriers and the challenges to doing their work, and I think it’s always important to listen to the people who are delivering the programs on the ground and learning from them about what needs to be in place so that they can do their job most effectively.

Across my career, I have also learnt that if you can tell the story of why you do what you do in a way that is incredibly succinct and appeals to individuals, it’s incredibly beneficial because then people can connect to the cause. But I always caution organisations on that to an extent because it’s important you’re telling your story to everyone and not just people that might have gone through similar circumstances because you risk alienating a lot of potential supporters and a lot of people who are incredibly influential in the sector, in government and in other supportive systems as well.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?

A lot of the work that I do is going out, engaging new people, trying to talk to them about what we do and convince them to either do their work in a different way or convince them to support our work. I understand having supported NFPs and people within the for-purpose sector, that that can be often very, very intimidating if you don’t feel like you know all the information, particularly in the policy space.

But it’s important to remember that to influence change, you don’t necessarily have to be the personal expert in that thing. If you can curate environments to bring the right people together to make change, that will be much more powerful than just going in as one individual.

I think it’s also important to recognise that influential people are human too. Understanding that and connecting with individuals on a personal level is really important, rather than just going in with a list of facts and figures to sell yourself and sell your organisation. In doing so, you’ll build much more meaningful relationships that will be nuanced and will adapt over time.

And what do you like to do to relax when you’re not at work?

I would normally say travel but that hasn’t been so possible this year. Travel has always been a passion of mine because I love learning about new cultures. Understanding different people, how change happens, and how cultures develop is really fascinating to me. 

But being at home in Melbourne and not having the opportunity to get outside of my five kilometre radius for a while, I’m very passionate and increasingly focused on meditation. At the end of last year I qualified as a meditation teacher and actually introduced an offering of meditation in the workplace courses as an add on to my consulting business. I really recognise how purpose-driven individuals find it hard to separate their personal and professional life, leading to an incredible amount of burnout, which I have seen in myself in the past, as well as in many colleagues. I’ve been working with organisations to offer regular meditation as a support mechanism for their staff during lockdown and to understand how to integrate meditation and mindfulness practice within your workplace, which can improve interpersonal relationships, team building opportunities, more empathy, and also just better self-awareness of personal limitations and boundaries. 

From my own personal interest as a meditator it’s something I enjoy, but also being able to combine that with a passion for supporting the for-purpose sector has been really wonderful over the last year.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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