Since missionaries handed services to the government in the 1980’s, the women of Galiwinku on east Arnhem Land’s Elcho Island have been forced to travel away from community for birth, leading to a loss of cultural connection and serious health inequity.
Birthing on country had been custom for 60,000 years for local Yolngu people prior to missionary arrival.
With the removal of local birthing centres since, a dependency on western health services creates difficulties for women on the island.
Yolngu elder Lawurrpa Maypilama said being forced to travel alone to hospitals hundreds of kilometres away causes significant distress.
“Its really upsetting and stressful for women to birth away from home,” she said.
“Yolŋu women do not speak English as a first language and the workers in the hospital only speak English.
“When women are stressed its much harder to give birth and the stress can be passed onto the baby too.”
Nurse and midwife Sarah Ireland said First Nations women in Galiwinku deserve a redesigned service for culturally and clinically safe birthing on Country.
“The current maternity service is failing First Nations women and babies,” she said.
“Birthing on Country Services can provide culturally and clinically exceptional care to address perinatal inequities.
“Evaluation of an urban Birthing on Country service demonstrated a 50% reduction in preterm birth which is a remarkable outcome.
These services would integrate western childbirth standards into the cultural tradition.
The return of traditional practice would serve in connecting Yolngu to part of their cultural largely forgotten.
“Returning Yolngu childbirth to the island and our control will change everything,” Ms Maypilama said.
“It will make our inner beings strong and our bodies healthy.
“When a child is born on country we can make the child’s Yolŋu identity strong and connect them to everything, our Yolŋu world and family.”
A program pushing to reclaim the tradition has developed into a documentary titled Djakmirr, taking its name from the term for skilled childbirth companions who once supported Galiwinku women.
Ms Ireland and Ms Maypilama were heavily involved in its production.
Djakamirr was released in 2021 with screenings continuing around the country.