Birth for Humankind delivers free support, so no-one should give birth alone

Carol Saffer

Twenty-year-old Zahra* was 30 weeks pregnant when her culturally conservative parents told her to leave the family home; they did not speak to her again.

Her boyfriend was emotionally supportive but lived with his parents, who didn’t know about the pregnancy, so he could not contribute financially. She stayed on a friend’s couch for a while, but they asked Zahra to leave before her baby was born. 

Zahra was referred to Birth for Humankind, which is based in North Melbourne, while on a waiting list for housing and youth counselling.

She often cried because she felt so alone, missed her family’s support and worried about what would happen to herself and her baby. 

She had no idea if or when housing and counselling services would be available to her.

Birth for Humankind believes that no-one should give birth alone.

CEO Ruth Dearnley said, “We provide free birth support to people experiencing social or financial disadvantage.”

“While we have a good public health system, people undergoing social isolation face complex barriers to seeking the support they need throughout pregnancy and early parenthood.”

Recent data collected by Birth for Humankind shows 63 per cent of their clients are at risk of perinatal mental health issues, and 81 per cent lack a trusted person to support them throughout pregnancy and birth.

People from a refugee background or seeking asylum made up 26 per cent of their client base last financial year, and 56 per cent had a primary language other than English. Many of their clients face complex barriers throughout pregnancy and early parenthood.  These hurdles lead to lower medical appointment attendance, limited access to information in their first language, trouble accessing interpreters, and client embarrassment and misunderstanding when dealing with medical professionals and medical terminology.

“We provide tailored support to people who may be facing some or many of these barriers,” Ms Dearnley said.

A fully trained volunteer doula, a qualified, non-medical companion who assists a woman before, during and after childbirth, is the primary support provider.


The word “doula” comes from the Greek language meaning “woman’s servant”. They support, advocate, and mediate on behalf of their pregnant client with her maternity-care providers. They are a “voice” for the mother if she feels she needs it, advising medical practitioners of the mother’s preferences or asking questions on her behalf.


Doulas don’t replace a woman’s partner, if she has one, during labour and birth, nor do they deliver the baby. 

Birth for Humankind matched Zahra with a doula, Jamie*. Zahra was initially very shy, but after their first meeting, she began to understand the support Jamie could provide and felt more comfortable getting in touch. 

Jamie then provided antenatal education sessions in preparation for Zahra’s labour and birth. 

Zahra went on to birth a healthy baby with Jamie by her side, relieved and happy she didn’t have to give birth alone; she moved into secure housing shortly after the baby was born. Jamie visited for six weeks after birth, helping with feeding and settling into being a mum, as well as helping her become familiar with public transport in her new area and how to travel with her baby.  Finally, she referred Zahra to local community health services for ongoing support.

Most Birth for Humankind clients give birth at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Parkville or Western Health in the inner west.

Ms Dearnley said the organisation is run totally on unpaid work from their doulas, and they are seeking government funding for the launch of a pilot program 

“We know consistent support throughout pregnancy reduces the risk of neo-natal depression and anxiety,” she said.

“The child is less likely to spend time in neo-natal intensive care; there is a reduced risk for medical intervention at birth, and better infant bonding with the mother.”

“This kind of service should become a critical complimentary service alongside current maternity services.”


“We have 50 per cent of our funding needs to implement a pilot program with the Royal Women’s Hospital and are seeking government funding to employ full-time doulas who can continue to improve health equity for vulnerable Victorians.”


Their volunteer doula workforce provided more than 150 services to their clients, including birth and labour support and extended postnatal support (up to eight weeks after delivery).

Samira*, a past Birth for Humankind doula trainee, said, “I’ve had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people through the program and in my time as a volunteer doula, and it’s an experience I’ll cherish forever.” 

“I loved having the company and support of many other passionate women and enjoyed the thought-provoking discussions during our time together.”

People who give their time as doulas range from private practice doulas, midwifery students and registered midwives, plus doulas trained through Birth for Humankind’s foundational training program. They speak 19 different languages and provided 1973 hours of support to clients during the last financial year.

“Last year, we had a large increase in client referrals for extended postnatal support, but given the capacity of our volunteer workforce, [sadly] we have not been able to match all these referrals,” Ms Dearnley said. 

*Names have been changed by request. •


Caption 1: Farzana: past client and now volunteer doula. Photographer Nynno Bel Air

Caption 2: Volunteer doulas in training. 

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