A Tower Hamlets charity that had continued during the pandemic to support women before and after birth of their babies has launched an appeal for more volunteers.
Maternity Mates is a programme set up by the Women’s Health and Family Services. The charity, based in Tower Hamlets, aims to address health inequalities such as those that experience abuse or are homeless and empower isolated pregnant women.
The programme began in Tower Hamlets and has now stretched to Newham and Waltham Forest, providing support to 300 pregnant women every year.
The charity is particularly appealing for volunteers who speak Albanian, Arabic, Mandarin, Somali and Urdu to help support pregnant women who do not speak English and struggle to understand.
The women are primarily from BAME communities, who often experience complex social factors including domestic abuse and homelessness, leading them to not have a sufficient support network whilst becoming a mother.
During Covid-19 most charities have had to adapt their roles to continue their work and Maternity Mates is no different. Chief Executive Karen Wint told ELL: “We had to respond to the COVID-19 challenge and adapt very quickly to a new way of working. Almost overnight, we had to go from face-to-face to virtual support (phone and video) for our mums.”
Maternity Mates are volunteers who undergo specialist training and are often mothers themselves. They create a trusting relationship with pregnant woman and provide a tailored support system.
Answering the phone at 2am when the mother is distressed or accompanying her to hospital appointments, a Maternity Mate provides round the clock service.
Jessica Semedo, a Mate for 2 years, currently living in Romford said, “Sometimes they just want a text message or a phone call other times they want to see us every day…sometimes just having our numbers saved to their phone is enough, knowing we are there if they need us.”
Throughout lockdown, the charity has continued to support vulnerable pregnant women remotely by phone to continue vital communication between volunteers and mothers.
Wint said: “We quickly supplied all our Maternity Mates with smartphones to enable them to provide remote support. We also provided telephone credit to the mums we are supporting as well as cab fare to get to their appointments and the hospital to avoid them travelling by public transport during the pandemic.”
Until December last year, individual hospitals across England chose whether they let birthing partners be present during birth. Most NHS hospitals chose to ban partners until the active hours of birth- not allowing anyone else other than the midwife and nurses.
The Mates were allowed to stay present in some hospitals, however, the charity did face some difficulties. In some cases, hospital staff were unaware that it had confirmation to be present during all stages of birth, which meant there were instances of Maternity Mates not being allowed to stay.
Semedo, herself a mother of two, from Portugal, 32 said: “I feel really sorry for the mothers giving birth during COVID… you have your baby and don’t get to see anyone…it is very challenging.”
“It’s been difficult for mums to deal with not only their pregnancy and existing challenges but COVID-19 on top of that too. Many mums who are already quite isolated were further marginalised during the pandemic.” Said Wint, who is working hard to tackle inequalities in the health system.
The charity swiftly dealt with the obstacle and its member now carry a letter signed by senior management of relevant hospitals to the hospital reception in order to maintain support during exceptional situations.
They help to provide all the information the mother needs and wants to know such as birthing plans; a key role which Semedo said, nurses are sometimes unable to do so.
Semedo, who is now studying to be a paediatric nurse, said: “Care is not only about medicine it’s about the doctors and nurses that deliver the care. Sometimes midwives don’t have time to sit down and talk the women through their options… The NHS is very stressed and very challenged.”
In 2019, One in six patients waited longer than four hours to be seen in A&E. With staff shortages, underfunding and unprecedented demands, the NHS is struggling to cope, jeopardising the ability to provide quality health and social care.
Wint told ELL “On the positive side, the pandemic has forged even stronger relationships between Maternity Mates and the mums, and a greater respect for our Maternity Mates programme within maternity services and amongst other services of how we can support them in caring for women.”
Semedo, who said she is now missing her role in the charity said: “This project changed my life and formed who I am today. …I ended up learning and being the student…they teach you so much about life.”