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Midwives the unsung heroes of climate resilience in Africa
Author: Prof Doreen Kaura
Published: 06/05/2024

​The International Day of the Midwife was celebrated on Sunday 5 May. The theme for 2024 was “Midwives: A Vital Climate Solution". In an opinion piece for the Cape Times, Prof Doreen Kaura from the Department of Nursing and Midwifery writes that midwives promote sustainable healthcare and childbirth practices in Africa that minimise environmental impact.

  • ​Read the original article below or click here for the piece as published.

Prof Doreen K Kaura*

Every year, on 5 May, the world celebrates the International Day of the Midwife, honouring the vital role midwives play in ensuring safe childbirth, and maternal and newborn health. This year, as we commemorate this significant day, it's imperative to recognise midwives not only as guardians of life but also as crucial actors in combating the existential threat that climate change poses to mother earth. This year's theme "Midwives: A Vital Climate Solution", highlights how midwives in Africa are at the forefront of climate resilience efforts, safeguarding communities and fostering sustainable healthcare practices.

Midwifery is often misconstrued as merely a branch of nursing. However, it embodies a distinct profession, rooted in expertise and specialised skills focused on maternal and newborn care. In Africa, where access to comprehensive healthcare remains a challenge for many, midwives stand as frontline champions, providing essential services that are indispensable to the well-being of communities.

The significance of midwifery transcends individual health outcomes; it intersects with broader environmental concerns, making midwives unwitting but crucial players in climate action. Across Africa, climate change poses unprecedented challenges, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and threatening the health and livelihoods of millions. In this context, midwives emerge as unsung heroes, embodying a holistic approach to healthcare that integrates environmental stewardship with maternal and newborn well-being.

First and foremost, midwifery promotes sustainable childbirth practices that minimise environmental impact. From advocating for natural birthing techniques to supporting breastfeeding initiatives, midwives prioritise interventions that align with eco-friendly principles, reducing the carbon footprint associated with childbirth and postnatal care. By emphasising non-invasive, low-resource methods, midwives not only ensure safer deliveries but also contribute to the preservation of natural resources, fostering a symbiotic relationship between healthcare and the environment.

Connecting the dots between midwifery and climate change may not be immediately apparent, but the relationship is profound. Climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and newborns in Africa. Extreme weather events, food insecurity, and the spread of infectious diseases pose significant risks to maternal and child health. Therefore, through education and empowerment, midwives equip women with the knowledge and skills needed to cope with environmental stressors and protect their health and that of their newborns. From teaching sustainable farming techniques to providing family planning services, safe water and sanitation practices, midwives empower communities to build resilience against climate-induced health risks, ultimately fostering sustainable development.

The symbiosis between midwifery and environmental sustainability is further exemplified by the role of midwives in disaster response and humanitarian relief efforts. As climate-induced disasters become more frequent and severe, midwives are at the forefront of emergency response, providing life-saving care in the aftermath of floods, droughts, and other environmental crises. Their ability to adapt to challenging conditions, coupled with their intimate knowledge of local communities, makes them indispensable assets in times of crisis, demonstrating the resilience and resourcefulness inherent in midwifery practice.

However, despite their invaluable contributions, midwives in Africa continue to face numerous challenges that hinder their ability to fulfil their potential as agents of change. Limited access to education and training, inadequate resources, and systemic barriers often impede the delivery of quality maternal and newborn care, exacerbating disparities and undermining efforts to promote sustainability and resilience. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach that prioritises investment in midwifery education, capacity building, and policy reform, ensuring that midwives have the support and resources they need to thrive in their critical role.

On this International Day of the Midwife, let us reaffirm our commitment to midwifery as a cornerstone of sustainable healthcare in Africa and beyond. By recognising the integral connection between midwifery and environmental sustainability, we can harness the transformative power of midwives to address the dual challenges of maternal health and climate change. Through strategic investments, advocacy, and collaboration, we can empower midwives to lead the charge towards a healthier, more resilient future for all.

Governments, policymakers, and healthcare stakeholders must prioritise midwifery as a fundamental component of the healthcare system and allocate adequate resources to support midwives and the communities they serve. This includes investing in midwifery education, regulation which is not under nursing and support of midwifery practice through continuous professional development, improving working conditions, and providing access to essential supplies and equipment.

In celebrating midwives as vital climate solutions, we not only honour their tireless dedication and compassion but also acknowledge the profound impact they have on the health and well-being of communities and mother earth. Together, let us stand in solidarity with midwives everywhere, as they continue to inspire hope, promote resilience, and pave the way towards a brighter, more sustainable ecological footprint of childbirth for future generations.

*Prof Doreen K Kaura is an associate professor in the Department of Nursing and Midwifery in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Stellenbosch University.