Young woman holding toddler

In a first for Australia, the recently launched Healthy Happy Beginnings program provides an opportunity for refugee women in Melbourne’s West to access health care and support during pregnancy.

Healthy Happy Beginnings is a community-based, socially inclusive program for Karen women from Burma and families during pregnancy, childbirth and the months after.

A partnership of organisations including Murdoch Children's have developed a new program based in the Victorian suburb of Werribee, the program is free for women to attend. It is designed to promote health literacy and health promotion and understanding of the health system in the context of pregnancy and early childhood. The program is facilitated by a multidisciplinary team of midwives, a maternal and child health nurse, an interpreter and a bicultural worker.

Young Karen refugee with child

Women are offered individual appointments for antenatal care with a midwife and an interpreter, alongside group information sessions with the nurse, midwife and bicultural worker.

Waan Tardif, the program’s bicultural worker, explains the issues facing Karen women.

“When a young refugee woman comes to Australia she soon learns that her pregnancy experience will be quite different. She does not have the benefit of family and community living close to her for support. She is confronted with a whole range of medical tests she doesn’t understand. The doctors often don’t explain why they are giving medication or referral for a test. The pregnant mum-to-be feels like she has no control of the situation and no right to make any decisions about her pregnancy. She feels isolated and alone, and she is confused by all the things she is expected to do”.

“The program aims to help young mothers and mothers-to-be take control of their lives, and encourages them make decisions for their children by giving them information, and confidence through emotional and physical, and social support” says Waan.

Waan believes the project is very important for these women.

Dr Elisha Riggs is a lead researcher involved in the Healthy Happy beginnings program, and believes that this initiative is integral part of maternal education for refugee women.

“Refugee populations are known to have higher rates of a range of physical, psychological and social health problems which relate to their previous experiences of trauma and the stresses now associated with their settlement in Australia,” Dr Riggs says. “Our research shows that refugee communities have a limited understanding of Australia's health system and many women and families don’t know where to go for help when pregnant.”

In a community consultation Karen women and men reported they have no access to pregnancy information, are reluctant to attend hospitals, and cannot afford to attend antenatal classes. This chain of events has significant health, social and economic implications for families and for the Australian health system.

“The development and implementation of this unique pregnancy initiative aims to serve the needs of Karen women, a high-risk and vulnerable group. Comprehensive evaluation will identify women and providers’ experience of the program, health outcomes and costings.” Dr Riggs says. “The program has the potential to be scaled up across Australia and because it is being implemented within existing resources, Healthy Happy Beginnings has true potential to promote health equity. Our intention is for the program protocol and resources to be made freely available throughout Victoria and Australia with potential for uptake internationally,” Dr Riggs says.

Waan Tardif with Karen refugees

Collaboration underpins this program. It is a partnership between the Murdoch Children's, Wyndham City Council, Western Health, VICSEG (Victorian Cooperative on Children's Services for Ethnic Groups), ISIS Refugee Health Nurse Program and Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies, South West Melbourne Medicare Local and The Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture (Foundation House). The partners aim to implement a completely new way of providing care, tailored to community needs.

“The main strengths of this program are to make the women and their families feel supported, cared for, a sense of belonging, and to help with their wellbeing. The program keeps providing support long after the baby is born; it’s designed to help families transition from pregnancy through to parenting support with maternal and child health, playgroups to kindergarten and to start school,” says Waan.

Healthy Happy Beginnings is a demonstration project situated within a larger initiative - Bridging the Gap: partnerships for change in refugee child and family health, which is led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

The program was launched by Ms Joanne Ryan MP representing the Division of Lalor, Victoria for the Australian Labor Party.