Lack of access to maternity care and gender bias among issues rural women face

October 15 is the International Day of Rural Women, a day established by the United Nations to recognise the essential role of rural women in food and fibre systems across the globe.

Rural women are not just farmers and growers – they are the small businesswomen, the main household support that keeps things ticking over, and the people that play an active role in building communities. They are the doers, the connectors, and the supporters that make things happen.

The people that know this well are Rural Women New Zealand (RWNZ). RWNZ is a charitable organisation that supports and celebrates women living in rural and regional New Zealand, provides learning opportunities, and is an important voice for rural communities, advocating across a wide range of rural, health, technology, business, and social issues.

Gill Naylor, President and International Portfolio Convenor for RWNZ, has been farming all her life. She grew up on a Southland farm and ran a farm with her husband in Central Otago. While she doesn’t farm these days, she is still heavily involved in rural communities through RWNZ.

Gill says she joined RWNZ as a member for “the connection, the community service, and the learning opportunities that Rural Women New Zealand provided.”

She says that a massive role that rural women play is connecting communities – putting their hand up to volunteer and get stuff done. She knows this well, having played an active role in her community over the years.

“Part of being in a rural community is doing all that community service, and that builds your social network too. It’s the real heartland kind of stuff – organising activities in the local hall, playgroup, schools, the local A&P show, sports clubs – those sorts of things.”

In addition, rural women offer silent support, helping their family, business, and communities adapt to change and keep going through periods of uncertainty and stress.

“Often, women are holding things together quietly, so it’s important to recognise that, as it usually goes unnoticed,” she says.

Rural women face a multitude of challenges in their day-to-day lives that many of their urban counterparts don’t have to. Gill notes that a huge issue rural women face is restricted access to care, especially maternity services.

“Mums and babies are our future, so it’s absolutely critical that we have a well-supported midwifery service in rural areas. That means looking after our midwives properly – making sure there’s enough of them and ensuring it’s a profession that is worthwhile for them,” Gill says.

This year’s series on Fieldays TV addressed this issue in the episode, Maternity care in our rural communities, featuring a panel that explored the difficulties rural mothers and their midwives face.

In the panel discussion, Sheryl Wright, a rural community midwife who works in a remote rural setting in the Coromandel, talks about the challenges that she as a midwife and rural mothers face:

“My biggest challenge is working alone a lot of the time,” she says. “I’m having to rely on midwives who live a long distance away to back me up or provide second services. Also organising time off [is a challenge].

“It’s also a big challenge for the women because they have long distances to travel. If a woman needs a scan, it’s at least an hour, if not an hour and a half’s drive to access that.

“That comes with an associated cost for that woman who may need time off work, which becomes challenging for them and for me, because sometimes they won’t access those services even though they need them.”

Gill notes that another massive issue rural women still face is conscious and unconscious bias against women and their ability to perform jobs on farm.

“In terms of overcoming conscious bias, it’s a matter of seeing that women and girls can do jobs on farm – it’s not necessarily a man’s role, women are perfectly capable.

“If there is a way to do a task in an easier and more efficient way, rather than putting a lot of strain on anyone’s body, male or female, maybe farmers and growers need to reconsider the way things are done.”

To address unconscious bias against rural women, Gill explains that “we need to ensure that things such as language and the imagery around farming in the primary sector is gender-balanced.” 

Through their work, RWNZ is also encouraging and empowering the next generation of women to join the primary sector. They promote primary sector careers through their networks and provide financial assistance through education grants and bursaries. They also have been championing rural women on their podcast, Black Heels and Tractor Wheels, which shares the stories of New Zealand mana wahine.

Gill notes that while it is important to have a day dedicated to women living rurally to recognise their contribution to society, here in New Zealand RWNZ continues working hard, ensuring rural women are supported and that the issues they face stay on the agenda.

“We’ll just keep on keeping on – strengthening, supporting, and connecting our people and rural communities, that’s what we do.”

The theme of the International Day of Rural Women this year is ‘Cultivating Good Food for All.’

Head to fieldaysonline.co.nz to view the Fieldays TV panel discussion, ‘Maternity care in our rural communities’ on demand.

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