Over the past year we have all discovered what it is to be submerged into an unfamiliar and distressing new reality. We have all, to varying degrees, felt the effects of instability and had to learn to navigate the anxiety and uncertainty of our new existence. While the emotional tumult of the pandemic has been difficult, overwhelming and, for many of us, lonely we have gained only a fractional insight of the challenge faced by displaced people in adapting to life in a new country. Adding to this the monumental emotional and physical demands of pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood, Frankie Granger explores the vital importance of the work done by Project Mama.
Project Mama is a Bristol based charity, founded in 2018, that supports ‘pregnant refugees, asylum-seekers, survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking and other displaced women’. Providing support in all stages of their pregnancy and in early motherhood, Project Mama works to tackle the inequalities in maternal health and well-being within the demographic of displaced women. I spoke to the CEO and founder, Fiona Mann, who provided insight into the amazing work Project Mama does and why it is just so necessary.
Fiona’s experience as a support worker for survivors of trafficking illuminated just how necessary this service is. A number of Fiona’s clientele were pregnant, in some cases as a result of the exploitation they had suffered, and lacking their own personal support community, Fiona’s clients would often ask her to accompany them as a birthing partner. Fiona learnt first-hand the specific needs of displaced women during pregnancy and childbirth, and so decided to pursue further training and provide a service to meet these demands.
Women from migrant backgrounds are four times more likely to suffer postnatal depression than other women in the UK. Their babies are more likely to be stillborn or born prematurely, to have a low birth weight, or to have birth defects. Maternal mortality in this specific demographic is also disproportionally high.
Fiona explained the pervasive nature of the issues that contribute to these dismaying statistics, highlighting to me the nuances of the privileges afforded simply by being born in this country. She explained that the difficulties of displacement do not end with the trauma of fleeing your home-country, but pervade every aspect of life in an unfamiliar culture, from accessing healthcare and conversing with a doctor, to reading a sign or buying a bus ticket. At the centre of Project Mama’s work lies an appreciation for these cultural dynamics, and work not only to be sensitive to them but to learn from the knowledge brought by the Mamas.
In Fiona’s words, “learning about different birthing practices is a wonderful thing in and of itself, and I consider being there for the women during such a momentous time to be a real privilege”. Fiona emphasised the intimacy of the relationships built between the mothers and the ‘Mother Companions’, in which a sense of “mutual vulnerability” fosters a dynamic of cultural exchange between peers. Project Mama works with around 10 Mamas at any given time, and over the course of 3 years have fostered a “sisterhood” of over 80 displaced women in Bristol.
The Project Mama team is made up of 17 women from a variety of career backgrounds, including human-rights, midwifery, as well as activists and women, like Fiona, who have experience working with displaced people. I was amazed to hear of the sheer number of services provided by charity, from providing advice and signposting to different services, to birth preparation, even supporting their clients through the birth itself, and continuing through the following 8 weeks. What remains a clear priority to Fiona throughout all this is providing a sense of “companionship”.
As she put it, “walking beside somebody, and being that consistent reliable support. Connecting and having a relationship, with someone or with a group of people, is so integral to all of our sense of wellbeing and safety. That is the crucial thing”. Fiona recounted one instance in which she had assisted one woman through her birth, and then went home with her, holding the baby so that the new mother could shower. I felt that this passing recollection gave me a small yet deeply moving insight into how intimately and personally Project Mama cares for their clients.
A significant portion of Project Mama’s work surrounds assisting access to legal support, helping secure housing, and advocating for other necessities for the mothers’ safety. While being rendered vulnerable by their current circumstances, many of the Mamas have endured hardships beyond what many of us could comprehend. It struck me forcefully throughout our conversation that Project Mama works with this awareness clearly in mind, and is motivated to increase the strength and resilience already possessed by their clients.
Fiona outlines that a main priority of her work is ensuring that “women feel more independent when they leave our service than when they join us”. Central to this is educating their clients, discussing subjects such as consent and encouraging them to make informed decisions. Project Mama makes their consistent aim to empower women to “question the status quo”, and Fiona was emphatic that “if nothing else” she aims to impress upon her clients the “power and importance of asking questions”.
As an organisation Project Mama put their own words into action, questioning the status quo on an institutional level. This, Fiona feels, is a necessary next step for their progress as a charity: “we feel like we can’t continue on with the beautiful Mother Companions project, without addressing the systemic issues that are happening in front of us”. One initiative that Project Mama is currently developing is their ‘Bumps and Babes without Borders’ Project, which aims to implement change at policy level through “speaking women’s experience to power”.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has limited progress in setting up this project and it has had to be put on hold until face-to-face work can go ahead. Despite this, Fiona sees the work of Project Mama as existing in the centre of a Venn diagram in which activism for migrant and refugee rights intersects with that of maternity rights, and that it is a hopeful time in the progress of these campaigns. She mentioned specifically a campaign called ‘Five X More’, that addresses the fact that black women in the UK are currently five times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts, and the systemic racism that perpetuates this.
Inevitably, our conversation eventually turned to the challenges imposed by the pandemic, and unsurprisingly the delay of ‘Bumps and Babes without Borders’ is not the only difficulty they have faced. Before lockdown had even hit, Project Mama had set to work reaching out to their clients, providing them with extra support through the rising panic of emptying shelves and constantly changing restrictions. During Fiona’s description of their Covid-response, I was struck again by the intricacies of the challenges that pervade the life of displaced people, particularly mothers, and in turn the unbelievable efficacy of the service provided by Project Mama.
They rapidly contacted every Mama they had supported since they launched over two years prior, “asking, crucially, that they were okay, whether they had been informed of what was going on in a language of their understanding, and what they needed”. They started delivering essential items to women who, for example, weren’t able to leave the house, or were being turned away from supermarkets because they weren’t permitted to enter with their children. As the NHS was increasingly strained, Project Mama found it necessary to provide additional support in accessing vital healthcare and to demystify the constantly changing national regulations.
As on a national scale, Fiona witnessed incidences of domestic violence in her clients that drastically increased over the course of the pandemic. She described that through “simply stopping off on doorsteps they began to identify cases of domestic violence, and situations from which women needed an immediate escape”. Through contacting partner organisations, Project Mama was able to help put safety measures in place for many women. Unbelievably, Fiona added that during the pandemic, Project Mama extended their services to all mothers in need – “regardless of immigration status, just any Mama”. By January they had supported over 200 mothers.
I found that this final sentiment powerfully encapsulated the spirit of everything Fiona had discussed throughout our conversation. Project Mama is an organisation motivated by its instinct to protect women from struggles of displacement, while supporting them so that they can find strength in their own natural resilience. Working with this priority at its core, and with a team of the various of 17 women, they are able to make a very real difference in the lives of displaced women in Bristol.
Five X More: Committed to highlighting and changing Black Women’s Maternal Health outcomes in the UK
Art is from those who attended the International Women’s Day life drawing workshop.