Skip to main content

Gabriela Meléndez-Peláez to Receive 2022 Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health

Gabriela Meléndez-Peláez, a Guatemalan nurse-midwife, maternal health advocate, and the Founder of Asociación Corazón del Agua, will receive the 2022 Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health for her tireless work in addressing maternal health inequities in Guatemala. The award ceremony will be held virtually on March 29, 2022.

“Gabriela Meléndez-Peláez is addressing maternal health inequities, including maternal mortality in Guatemala’s population of Indigenous Mayan women directly,” said Penn Nursing Dean Antonia Villarruel, PhD, FAAN, “but her approach is anything but simple. As a well-respected Guatemalan nurse-midwife and maternal health advocate, founding Asociación Corazón del Agua to prepare midwives to integrate Mayan traditions into their practice and encouraging graduates to work in areas of high need—while advocating for midwifery at the local and national levels—is changing the fate of women in Guatemala. She is an exemplary recipient of the Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award.”

About Meléndez-Peláez and Asociación Corazón del Agua

Meléndez-Peláez founded Asociación Corazón del Agua in 2014. In partnership with Galileo University, they began Guatemala’s first university-level midwifery degree program. In a country where Indigenous Mayan women are twice as likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications than non-Indigenous women, this midwifery program is the only one in the country to incorporate Mayan traditions and knowledge around pregnancy and birth in its 3-year curriculum.

Corazón del Agua specifically recruits Indigenous Mayan students from some of the most underserved, high maternal mortality areas of Guatemala into its direct-entry midwifery program. During their training, students are linked with a traditional midwife, or comadrona, in their home communities to ensure traditional practices and knowledge are learned and incorporated into their clinical practice. Upon graduating, students are encouraged to practice in their communities or similar underserved communities. To date, three cohorts of a total of 32 young midwives have graduated and a new class will begin the program in July 2022. Through this work, Meléndez-Peláez is working to build Guatemala’s maternity care workforce to improve access to safe, respectful, and equitable maternity care in the most remote regions of the country. Through her work at Corazón del Agua, Meléndez-Peláez also seeks to advance the profession of midwifery through the development of the country’s first Association of Professional Midwives.

“I accept this award in recognition of all the hard work carried out by many midwives without resources, acknowledgement, or respect for their rights in Guatemala. This award will uplift our efforts to advocate for the national recognition of midwives as key health care workers to improve women’s health particularly pregnancy and childbirth outcomes and experiences, particularly among the most underserved,” said Meléndez-Peláez. “It will accelerate Corazón del Agua’s capacity to support young Indigenous midwives as they begin their work at the community level to ensure they have the resources and support they need to provide safe, quality, and respectful maternity care. I am proud to receive the Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award, which highlights the critical role of midwives as change agents for maternal health improvements in Guatemala.”

Impact and Advocacy

Corazón del Agua is working with leaders at the local and national level to advocate for changes that recognize the important role midwives play and support better integration of their services. Meléndez-Peláez is actively advocating for the Guatemalan Ministry of Health to officially recognize the midwifery profession and eliminate barriers that prevent midwives from fully exercising their work. The formation of the Association of Professional Midwives will further strengthen these efforts.

To date, more than 15,000 women have received sexual and reproductive health services by the three cohorts of midwives who were in training between 2013-2021. In addition, Corazón del Agua graduates started a Midwife Network and Midwife Cooperative which allow them to order medical supplies in bulk to significantly lower costs and serve more women and girls in low-resource settings. An app was also built to make it easier for the team to gather and analyze data in a way that is efficient, requires less time from midwives, and allows midwives in training to generate reports.

“The Center for Global Women’s Health is delighted to present the Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health to Gabriela Meléndez-Peláez,” said Monique Howard, EdD, MPH, Senior Director, Women’s Health Initiatives. “As a midwife, her work is paramount to reducing maternal mortality among Indigenous Mayan women, which is closely aligned with the Center’s strategic priorities. The Center is excited about this partnership and the ability to support the training and development of Indigenous Mayan women.”

About the Renfield Award

The Penn Nursing Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health was established in 2012 by the Beatrice Renfield Foundation. This award and prize is presented biennially to a leader, or leaders, in the field of global women’s health. The goals of the Award include raising awareness of global women’s health issues, supporting multi-disciplinary approaches to addressing global women’s health issues, and rewarding innovative strategies designed to deal with pressing issues for women. The Beatrice Renfield Foundation is led by Jean Renfield-Miller, PAR’15. The Foundation is named after Jean’s sister, who devoted years of service and resources as an advocate for the nursing profession. Past winners include: Daron Ferris, MD, Founder of CerviCusco, Peru (2020); Vandana Gopikumar, PhD, Co-Founder of The Banyan, India (2018); Denis Mukwege, MD, Founder of the Panzi Hospital and Panzi Foundation, Democratic Republic of Congo (2016); and Edna Adan Ismail, Founder and Administrator of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, Somaliland (2014).