Saving the lives of mothers and newborns in Africa
Annette Bennett is the Maternal Advisor to a humanitarian non-governmental organisation working in South Sudan. Her groundbreaking work is saving the lives of mothers and newborns in Africa.
Master of Midwifery (Research), 2015
Maternal health adviser, scholarship coordinator and Ebola preparedness trainer, Samaritan’s Purse
Based in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, midwife and nurse Annette Bennett has a somewhat restricted life: she and her husband live in a compound, they have an 8pm curfew and Bennett isn’t allowed to drive.
Having spent 20 years in Africa, she’s used to safety precautions, but she admits her present role is the most challenging yet.
Bennett has been upskilling young midwives and onboarding established professionals at a bare-bones hospital in the country’s remote north-east, a region prone to instability. While she speaks some Arabic (a legacy of the decade she spent in Egypt, running a clinic for refugees), there are several more languages to contend with in South Sudan, plus a patriarchal society resistant to change.
Not to mention the threat of Ebola, which is endemic in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I have a duty of care to my midwifery graduates and the women in their care.
In many ways, Bennett is starting all over again in South Sudan after making significant gains for midwives, and the mothers and newborns in their care, in Ethiopia.
In 2006, as the founding Dean of the Hamlin College of Midwives, she established Ethiopia’s first fully accredited, direct-entry Bachelor of Midwifery course. Awarding scholarships to young women in rural areas, she provided hands-on training with plenty of post-graduation support.
In return, students agreed to go back to their home town to work. It was a completely new approach in a country where, at the time, 99 per cent of midwifery students were males from urban areas.
“The government would send these midwives to a remote area, one at a time, with a population of up to 200,000 to care for,” says Bennett.
“They didn’t speak the local language and they weren’t accepted by the community. Any pregnant women who did come to the health centre usually did so because they were at death’s door.”
As a result, many midwives would leave before the end of their contract.
Today, the Hamlin College of Midwives continues to turn out highly skilled professionals. The college does not take in huge cohorts and the number of graduates is modest, but these midwives are leaders in their profession. Some have gone on to complete a master’s degree or work as mentors and academics.
Others have transformed healthcare for mothers and newborns in their home towns.
In Burrakat in Ethiopia’s remote Amhara region, for example, the health centre used to deliver one or two babies a month, says Bennett, and survival rates were dismal.
“Within seven years, our midwives were managing around 900 births a year, with not one maternal mortality.”
ROLE MODEL: “My mother. She had to leave school at 15 but went on to complete a Master of Linguistics. She and my father sponsored and supported dozens of refugee families from Vietnam during my teen years.”
SECRET SKILL: “I spent a year studying Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia.”
Q&A: Annette on leading positive change
What advice do you have for graduates who want to practise abroad?
"If you’ve never lived in a rural area, go and work in remote Australia and get a few years of experience under your belt. Make sure you’re really skilled and employable — we don’t want second best here."
Was there a moment in your career that changed everything?
"Early on in my time in Ethiopia, I met a young graduate at a remote health centre. She was the only midwife there, and she was burnt out, depressed and knew her skills were inadequate. She said to me, “I didn’t even complete a birth on my own before I graduated.” That was a game-changer for me. It solidified in my mind that I have a duty of care to my graduates and the women in their care."
What’s one thing you’re especially proud of?
"My daughter, Alleytia. She graduated from UTS, worked in the Northern Territory as an emergency nurse and is now nursing in South Sudan. She’s doing it hard in a very remote, resource-poor area. I tell her she’s gone next-level."