Photos revealing the reality of childbirth without clean water

Photos revealing the reality of childbirth without clean water
A new exhibition open this International Women's Day shines a light on the stories of mothers and babies in Malawi’s Ntchisi District, who were previously impacted by dirty water, poor sanitation and a lack of hygiene in health centres.

“My guardian had to get water from a stream so that I could bathe and clean myself after the birth. The water was dirty and not good. I could see things settling to the bottom of the bucket… I had to use the same water to drink from. We didn’t have a choice.”

Enala is 19 and lives near Kangolwa health centre in central Malawi. She gave birth a year ago, before the centre had clean water, becoming one of uncountable number of women in the south east African nation who are forced to give birth without access to clean water. Across the world, 16.6 million women will give birth in 2023 at health care centres without adequate water, sanitation and hygiene which equates to one woman every two seconds. 

Delia is another of those women. She has given birth 14 times across her 56 years, with eight of her children dying, some in childhood. She describes waking up every day worrying about water. Her worry is understandable as, tragically, she lost her seven-month-old grandson to diarrhoea.

 “Water is something I wake up every day worrying about. I have so many worries, it is like I have nowhere to run to.” 

Even in hospitals, such as at Ntchisi District Hospital (also in central Malawi), women are forced to give birth without access to running water. Eliza was one of those women and described the experience of labour in the medical centre before taps and toilets were installed as “the longest four days” of her life. 

These stories are the centre of a new striking outdoor multimedia exhibition by award-winning British-Egyptian photographer, Laura El-Tantawy. Launched by WaterAid and the Wimbledon Foundation, Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi, is open to the public until 14 April at More London near Tower Bridge.

Enala Etifala, 19, with her baby.

Enala Etifala’s, 19, reflection in a container of water.

The 22-piece collection of photography and moving imagery shines a light on the stories of mothers and babies in Malawi’s Ntchisi District, who were previously impacted by dirty water, poor sanitation and a lack of hygiene in health centres. 

Carrying Life is the first photo collaboration between international charity WaterAid and its partner, the Wimbledon Foundation, which has been supporting WaterAid’s work since 2017. Launched ahead of International Women’s Day, the exhibition aims to celebrate the dignity and strength of women in Ntchisi District whilst also drawing attention to the stark realities that nearly one in four healthcare facilities in Malawi are without clean water on site, leaving mothers and babies at risk of deadly infections.

“I witnessed the women in communities around Ntchisi trying to cope without water during some of the most intense moments of their lives, as they were about to give birth. But living in communities without access to clean water is a constant stress for them.” Photographer Laura El-Tantawy told Huck. “I was struck by the strength of the women I met. They lived with the reality of a lack of clean water, yet they never complained about it. My hope is that my photographs will help people understand the anxieties experienced by communities living without these basics, and also portray their dignity in the face of these struggles.” 

Women fetching water in the earliest run of the day at 3a.m.

Lustiya Banda, 32, has been at the guardian shelter near Nkhudzi Health Facility for nearly three weeks.

Around the world, 771 million people in the world (one in ten) do not have clean water close to home. Almost 1.7 billion people in the world (more than one in five) do not have a decent toilet of their own. Over 300,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That’s more than 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes. WaterAid is an international not-for-profit organisation which works in 28 countries to try and remedy this.. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 28 million people with clean water and nearly 29 million people with decent toilets.

The Ntchisi District, in which those featured in the exhibition live, is one of those helped by WaterAid, which has now provided essential water and sanitation access to ten clinics, four of which were provided with funding from the Wimbledon Foundation, official charity of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and The Championships. This means that women can now give birth free from the worry of infection caused by a lack of clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene.

Paige Murphy, Head of the Wimbledon Foundation, told Huck: “Carrying Life highlights the realities of giving birth without the essentials that many of us take for granted. By supporting WaterAid’s work to bring clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to all health centres around the world, we hope to save lives and give women and babies a better chance of a healthy future.”

Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi is free to the public and will be open daily at Riverside, More London, from 3 March to 14 April 2023.

Emilida Laison, 35, from the village of Masache, sitting in the kitchen area at the guardian shelter in Kangolwa Health Centre.

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