“It’s thought that black women were the first humans in the world and in that case it’s so demoralising and dehumanising as a black woman to know that we are five times more likely to die from simply birthing a baby and being pregnant.”

NHS midwife and activist Kyia Omoshebi, 24, has long been dedicating her time both within and outside of work hours to help contribute to the health care of women and enact change for those who need it most.

This year she: started her first full-time position as a midwife in the second week of lock-down in an East London hospital, found herself giving speeches at the Black Lives Matter protest in her time off and is now due to get work published on why black women are more at risk of adverse outcomes in pregnancy and childbirth within the UK.

“This needs a big, big, big action plan, flagged up and implemented immediately,” she says.

I spoke with Kyia who shared her story from the beginning.

Why midwifery?

After a brief period of wanting to be a teacher, Kyia settled on midwifery as the right profession for her at 12-years-old.

She says: “I just needed something to reach for. I had a godmother who was training at UCL to be a midwife and I was really interested in everything she did. She’d come home and I’d ask her all about it and it just sparked something inside of me.

“I’ve also had a very woman centred upbringing, so caring and advocating for women – it just felt like a natural path to go down. The more that I would tell people I wanted to be a midwife, being so young, I’d get such positive reinforcement from it, that it kind of became who I was.

“I was always the mother of my friendship group and I was caring for everyone.”

Turning the dream into a reality

Kyia Omoshebi
Activist midwife Kyia Omoshebi

“My mum had me at 14, so she wasn’t able to have the most straightforward career path. But she still really tried to remain focused and achieve what she wanted. She always loved art and did an art foundation a couple years after she had me and then went into university and studied interior design and art,” she says.

“So, I’d always known what it was to work hard and I’d always known that education was a valuable thing and my mum never undermined that.”

Despite having a strong role-model in this way, when asked if university was something that felt easily attainable, she says: “Not massively, no.

“I culturally came from a very working-class background and within the working-class environment, instant gratification is valued. So, working as soon as you can and making money as soon as you can.

“I had a large number of friends who were middle-class and white, so it was a natural progression for them to go into university. Those were the morals and values held within their household.

“Not that I didn’t have that – but I didn’t have cultural capital. I didn’t have the white privilege or social class privilege.”

Kyia is also dyspraxic and dyslexic which added its own challenge.

She says: “I got alright GCSE’s. I didn’t get amazing A-levels. Instead of graduating with three I graduated with two as I dropped biology at the last minute because I just found it too difficult.

“But I always knew that even if I didn’t succeed at these small milestones, in the bigger picture I would become a midwife and I’d do what it took for me to get there.”

And that’s what she did. She took an access course to midwifery at 19 – this, she says, was because she was proactive at researching what she could do if she didn’t have a biology A-level, not because it was suggested to her.

Kyia then went on to study midwifery at the University of the West of England.

The first baby

She delivered two babies in her first year. The first, she says, was “amazing”.

“I had a really lovely old school midwife who was my mentor and she was really interesting and wacky and supported me throughout the whole thing,” she says.

But, in fact, at 16-years-old Kyia had previously experienced birth when her little brother was born as she was her mother’s birthing partner. Another defining moment in her midwifery ambition.

“So then this [her first delivery] was like oh my god this is similar to what I’d experienced before, this is definitely what I want to do, I’m so happy to be in this position and working towards this goal,” she says.

“Then the more you do, you get tears in your eyes, when there’s that magical moment when the woman sees her baby and the father of the baby is crying and it just chokes you up. It is one of those moments that you go oh my god that’s really, really, really beautiful.”

Midwifery in Bristol

On her experience of studying midwifery as a black woman, she says: “Bristol is super diverse, but that’s not reflected in the amount of midwives that were working within my trust.

“It also was really not representative of the amount of midwives that were on my course. I was the only BAME student to graduate from my cohort.

“It was interesting because I was really happy to be a contributor in that space and share. I felt like my voice was really valid because it was a completely different perspective to that of a lot of the women in my cohort.

“But then that also puts the ownership on you to be that token black person and to always be advocating for it. I luckily had two amazing lecturers that were black women and they really made the difference to me.

“If you can see it, you can be it.”

Kyia Omoshebi
Kyia Omoshebi

Kyia is from London, which she describes as “very liberal” and “a bit of a bubble”.

“I really knew what it felt like to be black when I left London,” she says.

Bristol is known to be a very diverse city, but also a culturally segregated and divided one with little integration between communities.

“There’s a really large Windrush generation in Bristol and a large Somali community in Bristol that I cared for,” she says.

“Being able to work within that community as a community student midwife was what made all the difference to me. I just loved the women so much and felt like I’d made a real difference to their care and that I was relatable to them.

“I could see where there were issues and I could identify them and it opened my eyes to this whole bigger picture.”

Dissertation time

Kyia’s dissertation, ‘Black Women Matter!’, explores why black women are having more premature babies, why they are having more stillbirths, why they themselves are dying and why they are five times more likely to die than their white counterparts.

She says: “I remember sitting in a lecture, and we were looking at the MBRRACE-UK report, and we just breezed past that statistic. It wasn’t a massive discussion. It’s a massive statistic to me. I couldn’t believe it.

“I remember sitting there going why doesn’t anyone else care, why isn’t anyone else outraged, why do I feel like I’m sitting here nearly in tears and no one else actually has even flinched at that statistic.

“I think that’s what made me go right, something’s going on here, the fact that that doesn’t slap people in the face, that’s an issue.

“I just wanted to have solutions. I didn’t get the response I wanted and I had a hunger to find out.”

Delving inside

Black Women Matter!

It’s now due to be published – so for some education on why institutional racism is behind the statistic, or for a brilliant read, it should be read in full. Follow her page given below for updates.

Kyia talks briefly on some of the themes and research covered:

“I looked at what it is to be a black woman. I thought that was a really important place to start. The intersectionality of being a black woman. The crossover of two oppressions. You’re not only a woman, but you’re a black woman,” she says.

“You’re stigmatised on the ‘fact’ that you’re strong and sturdy, you’re stoic, you are never outspoken but aggressive, you are never vulnerable – and then that idea of black women and where that historically has come from and where it expresses itself within historical medicine.”

The dissertation looks at Dr. J. Marion Sims, known as the ‘father of gynaecology’, who would cure gynaecological issues, deformities and disabilities by doing experimental surgeries on enslaved black women without analgesia because of the notion that black women didn’t feel pain. He would then do the surgeries on white women with pain relief.

Kyia says: “It’s really important to understand the significance that black women had in gynaecology and reproductive health. And then understanding why we let the statistic get to where it is and this white fragility and understanding why white people can’t have this discussion.”

She also looks at American research.

“Although we have a completely different healthcare system, we’re behind them in terms of our advances for reproductive health for black women. They’ve done a lot of work on it – they were sitting with a statistic very similar to ours but actually, now, they’re about six years ahead of us so we could really learn a lot from America,” she says.

A further key finding from her research was communication issues.

She says: “Let’s not be confused that these women that are dying, they’re not immigrants – some of them are don’t get me wrong, some of the black women are – but largely we’re talking third generation of British black women are falling under this statistic.

“So, communication being an issue is not because no one’s getting translators – although that is a very large contributing factor – but more so that their needs, their fears and everything that they’re disclosing is being completely disregarded and not believed.

“A key example of this that I noticed when I was working in a Bristol hospital is when they were given the handover of all the women on the ward – they stopped on one woman and said ‘and apparently she’s got epilepsy’.

“They breezed past it. It was a Somali lady, and I thought never would they ever disregard a white woman saying she had epilepsy and disclose it as being apparently.

“If a woman’s telling you something and you’re not believing it as a professional, that leads on to premade judgements and professional attitudes caused by cultural distances – caused by institutional racism.”

Kyia adds: “There are these stereotypes we hold for black women and this is shown in the research of black women being less likely to be offered pain relief in pregnancy and childbirth [today].

“Looking back to the historical racism of black women not feeling pain as much, even though this is in the 19th century, this is what still underpins our medical system and is what filters down and is expressed.”

A possible explanation given in reports for the statistic that Kyia’s work explores is socio-economic status.

“They’re going well black women are poor, and because they’re poor, they live in these areas, they have poor nutrition, they have poor self-care, they’re not educated,” she says.

“No, no, no, because it’s been proven – that a middle-class black woman is still more likely to die than a working-class white woman so that suggestion is completely irrelevant to the statistic.”

Another of Kyia’s key findings was accessing antenatal care. “The women aren’t coming to antenatal care because they’re getting judged,” she says.

“This is also highlighted within Candice Brathwaite’s book I Am Not Your Baby Mother, which really speaks out and gives a voice to black women that have experienced NHS care.”

Back to London

I asked Kyia if she noticed both differences and similarities between working in Bristol and London.

“Massively. I’ve come home, I’m in an environment that is diverse, feels inclusive, and I do love London for that. I’m working in East London so it’s super, super diverse,” she says.

“On top of that, I’m at a hospital where the head of midwifery is a black woman and it feels like it’s a community hospital that aims to serve the community that it’s within.

“But, having said that, another thing that I do find has come out of Candice Brathwaite’s book is that she found she had a really diverse group of health care professionals that cared for her but they all had the same disregard for her needs.

“That tells me that despite it being diverse, it’s the way that midwives are institutionalised that is the issue. It’s not the fact that they’re not relatable as such.

“In Bristol I was just like well there’s no black midwives that’s why all these problems are happening – but they’re still happening.”

Despite more of a diverse workforce in London, the statistic is still the same.

Birth in the time of covid-19

When asked what starting work in the NHS in the onset of a pandemic was like, she says: “Crazy. Really, really crazy. You’re learning something that’s not the norm, but then you don’t know what the norm was, so it actually doesn’t feel that strange…but everyone’s telling you that it’s really strange.”

Despite it being nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing to make the transition from a student in this time, Kyia says she felt well supported by her maternity department of the NHS.

“But within the NHS we’ve always been overworked, underpaid and overstretched. So we’ve already got this morale going. We’ve had this morale forever. You keep going, you stay afloat, which is why we were able to deal with this pandemic in the way that we did,” she says.

Within Kyia’s Trust women can have one birth partner – pre-covid it was two. This has led to women having to choose, often between their mother or partner. Then, a couple of hours after the birth, they’re not allowed to have anyone there at all.

“So we give that extra bit of emotional support,” she says.

“Women are anxious and they don’t know what’s happening. They also just feel anxious about being in hospital, the place where they’re meant to feel safe enough to birth their baby, and I think it has taken a toll.”

It should also be acknowledged that BAME groups have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, with far more deaths.

Speaking at the Black Lives Matter protest

In response to the murder of George Floyd in America, police brutality and the UK’s shared problem of institutional and systemic racism here, many people took to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Kyia’s voice has been heard by thousands – in Parliament Square at the London protest and from footage being re-shared online. She talks through what led up to this:

She says: “It’s been a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of people for a while so it’s a bit overwhelming for the whole world to suddenly wake up to everything I felt like I’d been talking about for so long. It hit me quite hard, quite emotionally, and was quite draining.

“I had a lot of friends, white friends, call me up and ask me what do you think of this, and how can I be anti-racist and I thought, well, I really enjoy educating people and I really enjoy having these conversations, but I thought, funnily enough, I’m not in a position to want to talk to white people about this.”

Kyia is well aware we’re in the middle of a pandemic. However, she had two weeks’ annual leave so knew she could go to the march, maintain social distancing as best she could, and then have enough time to isolate.

She says: “I was listening to people speak and I had this urge – I had something to say. I wanted to talk to black people.”

REBIRTH: Kyia speaks at a London BLM protest

The future

Kyia felt things went from 0 to 100 and says: “I was like this is going to be really shit for everyone when it’s not at this height anymore, and people start to forget and people start to move on.

“It’s not a wave to be a black person, that un-comfortability is there whether we like it or not.”

She adds: “What I think that is amazing that’s come out of this movement, is suddenly people are going – oh, so racism isn’t a white guy and a wife beater with this really angry stare on his face.

“But actually, racism is a system, racism is how we’ve been socialised, it’s all of the opportunities that we’ve been given that other people haven’t. Racism is much bigger than the individual, and actually, inherently, if you’ve grown up within the western society there is a small inherent part of racism within you, whether you’re white or black.

“I think that’s a really important, important, important thing – that not only white people but black people are able to wake up and realise that they can say racism is a thing and it doesn’t make them vulnerable and it doesn’t make them more oppressed because they’ve identified it.”

Speaking on the future, she says: “Unless we completely disengage with the whole of society and capitalism, we’re probably going to maintain racism. But, I do think that the work we’re doing now is going to better it for generations later on, and then the generations after that.”

And, despite the fault of the healthcare system, she says: “I think it’s really important to go into health care and to go into pregnancy knowing that you need to be vulnerable, you need to let people in, you need to tell people your issues, you need to access the care.”

“Who is ready for a rebirth?”

Follow @taylor.jazz.kyia on Instagram for updates on the dates of her dissertation publication and the workshop she will be doing with Decolonising Contraception.

Collectives/platforms to donate to/follow/read/share:

Black Mothers Matter: @blackmothersmatteruk / https://www.blackmothersmatter.org/

Five x More: @fivexmore_ / https://www.fivexmore.com/about

The Motherhood Group: @themotherhoodgroup / https://www.themotherhoodgroup.com/

Make Motherhood Diverse @makemotherhooddiverse / https://www.makemotherhooddiverse.com/

Midwives Against Racism: @midwivesagainstracism

Re-Birth Equity Alliance: @rebirthequity / https://www.rebirthequity.org/about

Petitions to sign:

Improve maternal mortality rates and health care for black women in the U.K: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/301079

Make education on racial inequalities within maternity mandatory: https://www.change.org/p/uk-parliament-improve-education-surrounding-black-women-s-birth-experiences-and-outcomes

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