Report from Roda's 10th Annual Milk Conference and reBIRTH 2017
"When we began advocating for improvements in reproductive healthcare 15 years ago, we though we were doing so for all women, equally. Only years later did one mother open our eyes to the fact that we were mistaken. She is with us here today, and her personal story helped us understand that for many women, Roda was not accessible to a large number of women. Today's event is dedicated to them."
With these words we opened Roda's 10th Milk Conference and reBIRTH 2017, aptly titled "Motherhood and Women with Disabilities".
Although Roda has hosted numerous conference events, this was the first time a conference in Croatia was solely dedicated to the reproductive rights of women with disabilities. From the start we took into account the needs of women with disabilities in choosing the venue, including sign language interpreters and more - far from perfect though, we are still learning, and after the event got even more suggestions on how to become better and more inclusive, and as a result Roda's future events will be even more collaborative and inclusive of women with disabilities.
The conference hosted 140 participants from various public institutions, NGOs as well as healthcare professionals (midwives, community nurses, physicians). The conference was opened by Deputy Ombudswoman for Persons with Disabilities Ms. Mira Pekeč-Knežević. Other notable guests held short introductions, including Ms. Marija Pletikosa, State Secretary from the Ministry of Demographics, Families, Youth and Social Policies, Ms. Marinka Bakula-Anđelić, assistant to the head of the department for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities in the City of Zagreb, and Ms. Đurđica Ivković, program coordinator at UNICEF Croatia.
Alongside UNICEF Croatia, the conference's partners and sponsors included the Croatian Association for Training Seeing Eye Dogs and Mobility, the Croatian Association of Paraplegics and Tetraplegics, the Alliance of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons in the City of Zagreb, the Community Alliance of Persons with Disabilities Croatia, the Ombudswoman for Persons with Disabilities and the Swedish Embassy in Zagreb.
Ms. Branka Mrzić Jagatić presented the research study Roda conducted last year titled Motherhood with Disabilities at the beginning of the conference, while Ms. Marica Mirić from the Community Alliance of Persons with Disabilities Croatia held a presentation on national and international documents that protect the rights of persons with disabilities, with special emphasis on the Second Manifesto on the Rights of Women and Girls with Disabilities in the European Union.
The conference program was divided into two sections: one concentrating on women with physical disabilities and the second concentration on women with sensory disabilities. Two midwives from Liverpool Women's Hospital in the UK, Carmel Doyle and Jennifer Butters presented their best practices in providing healthcare to various vulnerable groups of women, including women with disabilities, in both conference sections; first concentrating on women with physical and then on women with sensory disabilities.
Nora Sandholt and Erika Nilsson from the Swedish NGO Spinalis presented a project they are implementing supporting parents with spinal injuries that has brought together over 600 parents who provide peer to peer support. They travel around Sweden sharing their knowledge and experience with healthcare providers and other parents with disabilities.
Zorica Kovač, a community nurse and IBCLC lactation consultant from Osijek had a presentation on breastfeeding support for women with physical disabilities, emphasising possible difficulties women may face based on their diagnoses, but also how to support women with disabilities to establish breastfeeding – the one thing that mothers with disabilities can fully do for their children by themselves.
Iva Podhorsky Štorek, midwife and IBCLC lactation consultant closed the conference with a practical presentation on supporting women with sensory disabilities to breastfeed, emphasising the importance of adapting communication for these women because "with certain adaptations, which they have been using throughout their lives, women with sensory disabilities live motherhood just as other women do." She ended her presentation with the conclusion that women with sensory disabilities need to have more breastfeeding support.
After the presentations, an open and constructive discussion birthed the conference's conclusions, some of which are:
- It is important to listen to the needs of women with various disabilities in order to offer them the community services they need;
- Activities in women's reproductive healthcare must include women with mental disabilities;
- All healthcare providers included in proving health and other forms of care to pregnant women and mothers with disabilities require special training on how to do this;
- Events such as these must even more actively include women with disabilities who have their own personal experiences in motherhood;
- Inter-sectoral collaboration is imperative and must be strengthened;
- Support must be offered to the entire family of a pregnant woman or mother with disabilities because they are often her greatest source of support;
- Women with disabilities and healthcare professionals need to be partners because while a healthcare provider might care for only one woman with tetraplegia in their career, that woman lives with her disability her whole life.
We would like to thank all our speakers and guests as well as participants who attended the conference from all over Croatia.
Special thanks to the City of Zagreb for supporting the event, as well as to our partners and donors who helped make this conference possible. They are (in alphabetical order):
The Croatian Association for Seeing Eye Dog Training and Mobility
The Croatian Association of Paraplegics and Tetraplegics
The Ombudsperson for Persons with Disabilities
The Zagreb Alliance of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons
The Embassy of the Kingdom of Sweden
The Alliance of Persons with Disabilities Croatia