Pregnancy is daunting enough, even with several months of preparation. But the patients of Memuna Sowe, a Croydon-based midwife, lack even the most basic necessities crucial to the health of both them and their unborn children.
For nearly 10 years, Sowe has dedicated her life to helping local women whose stories are usually marred by smears and stigma – teen mothers, alcoholics, drug addicts, refugees. And, as a mother of four (she just gave birth to a baby boy this January) and Croydon native herself, she is quick to draw parallels between birthing experiences of disenfranchised women in the borough and her own.
“I am passionate about equality,” she says. “When I was pregnant, I knew what I could have, I knew what was basic. But these women can’t even have the necessities. I’m so passionate about ensuring that these women are receiving equal care that we’re providing to someone who has had a better beginning in life.
“If you come [to Britain] and you don’t speak the language or if you are high on drugs and alcohol, you don’t understand the system. They should be able to feel comfortable to change their babies nappies often, not worrying that they’re going to run out.”
Sowe is currently the only midwife in Croydon Health Services NHS Trust’s homeless-health service, the only GP service that registers Croydon’s homeless population and provides them with healthcare. This year, it was reported that the number of rough sleepers in Croydon has increased at a rate of more than three times the London average since 2015.
Some of the pregnant women she meets are housed in hostels or B&B accommodation; others have no place to stay at all. All are attempting to navigate situations that are impossibly difficult, even without the added complication of pregnancy. During her shifts she provides antenatal care and outreach, which sees her going down to hostels and providing antenatal classes there.
“Sometimes without an appointment, they will turn up with their council letters, home office letters,” Sowe tells me. “Or they’ll come and say Memuna, do you know what? I’ve had a horrible weekend, and tell me that they’re worried about the baby – and then we’ll check the baby.”
Their stories, which are often littered with war, drug abuse, alcoholism and desperation, were initially hard to come to terms with when she first started. In order to preserve the mental health of her and her team, they regularly partake in clinical supervision – a group-therapy session where they are able to discuss the cases they’re working on with a counsellor.
“These were stories I wasn't used to hearing,” she says. “People living chaotic lifestyles – people leaving their countries, people who were homeless. I used to think, you know what, everyone has the opportunity to have a house, but I was caring for people who had just come into the country and didn’t. It was a big shock to my system.”
“I literally have to switch off, the moment I get in my car,” she sighs. “It’s hard, because I want to know how these women are. But as soon as I’m with my kids and my family, I have to switch off.”
Hers is a profession as crucial as it is overlooked, and the women Sowe cares for are among some of the most overlooked in the country
Sowe grew up New Addington, in a borough with a rising homeless population and notoriously high teen-pregnancy rate – something she says she witnessed firsthand among some of her friends as a teen. In 2015, the Office for National Statistics reported that the number of teen mothers in Croydon was higher than all London boroughs in 2013, with 232 pregnancies per 1,000 in girls aged 15 to 17. Alongside this, nearly 2,000 migrants arrive in the area annually and many of them are reluctant to register with a GP.
This year, her near decade-long commitment to looking after vulnerable pregnant women saw her named the best midwife in the country by the British Journal Of Midwifery Practice Awards. It was Sowe’s tendency to go above and beyond her duties that saw her receive the nod – when her own children grew out of their clothes, she donated them to the hospital she worked at. She then called on friends, family and colleagues to do the same, via a poster placed in her wing. Since many of the women she cares for are migrants, they speak little English; when working with women who were mainly from Albania, she made an effort to pick up the language and has also learnt some Arabic, too. “I always say that the most universal language is a smile,” she laughs.
It’s the little things that have made such a difference to her patients – from greeting them in their native tongue, to picking up nappy cream from Tesco in her lunch break. And this isn’t the first time she has received an award for her work – in 2016 she was named Croydon’s midwife of the year by the local trust.
“It was an absolute honour,” she says. “It’s not something I expected at all. When I went into this job, I didn’t go into it to be recognised. It’s not something you go into to be recognised for – you go into it to provide care.”
She’s right – it’s not often that the invaluable work of nurses and midwives is acknowledged. Hers is a profession as crucial as it is overlooked, and the women Sowe cares for are among some of the most overlooked in the country. “Now I have a platform to make sure that these women are being recognised,” she beams.
The celebration of nurses and midwives such as Sowe is wonderful and thoroughly deserved. But unsurprisingly, for her, the value of her work doesn’t lie in accolades. She has been rewarded for her work for several years, she tells me, by being able to see how she has helped change the lives of local women – and the lives of their children.
“One of the most rewarding things I get is when I walk through the high street in Croydon,” she says. “[I’ll see] a woman who I know and her life has completely turned around – someone who had issues with alcohol addiction during her pregnancy. Then I see her with her child, with a roof over their head and working. Seeing them later on is so rewarding.”