The Joys and Pains of Childbirth Around the World, in Photos
As part of the "Universal Motherhood" project, female photographers documented women from five different countries as they gave birth.
Jennifer, 19, holds her baby in the Quetzaltenango area of Guatemala. Photo by Carlota Guerrero/Save the Children
“It was the longest three minutes I’ve ever experienced,” the photographer Sian Davey says.
Sian was photographing the birth of Alice, but there were complications. “Alice didn't breathe for the first three minutes,” Davey says. “I prayed for this vulnerable newborn as we waited for her to take her first breath, surrounded by a team who quietly got on with the extraordinary job of bringing her to life.”
Ellen, 37, had gone through two miscarriages before she gave birth to Alice. She told Davey: “She came out purple and not breathing. They took her off to the corner to resuscitate her. She came back pink and breathing and crying and wonderful.”
Ellen gave birth to Alice in an NHS hospital in South London, surrounded by state of the art equipment and some of most of the most highly trained health-workers in the world.
But what’s it like to bring a baby into a world without such expertise at hand, without a sanitized hospital, without the right instruments, even without plentiful access to clean water?
Davey has been joined by female photographers Dana Popa, Hanna Adcock, Carlota Guerrero, Bieke Depoorter and Diàna Markosian to create a major new series exploring the experience of giving birth for women across the span of the world, from suburban London to the rural outposts in Nepal, Kenya, Romania, and Guatemala.
The project is titled Universal Motherhood. It’s created by London-based charity Save the Children in partnership with GSK, and launched at Noho Studios in Oxford Circus on Mother’s Day. The exhibition included an installation detailing real-time data on global infant mortality rates. The statistics for women across the world are stark. Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa account for 77 percent of all newborn deaths. More than 99 percent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries. In 2016, 30 million women gave birth without a trained attendant, according to the World Health Organization. In 2017, 2.6 million mothers lost their babies at birth, UNICEF reports.
It’s impossible not to dwell on the mesmeric disparity between a mother from one country and a mother from another. "I had prepared myself in a small way, in that I managed to save about 200 or 500 shillings, says Nelly, 25, of Bungoma County, Western Kenya, before she gave birth to her third child. (Save the Children has chosen to withhold the last names of photographic subjects.) That translates to roughly $4.90. Nelly spent 12 hours in labor—the photographer Bieke Depoorter captures her driven to the hospital on a motorbike, bumping over dirt roads as the contractions started.
Choti, a 25-year-old Nepalese Muslim woman, was photographed by the Armenian-American photographer Diàna Markosian in her rural village in the Banke District of Nepal, where she lives with her two children, husband, and his extended family. She says: “When I didn’t children, life was great. I could do anything I wanted. There was no rush, it was relaxing.”
Choti returned home the day she gave birth, and delivered her baby without any pain relief. Of giving birth, Choti says: “It’s your pain and no-one can take it away. You have to do it yourself.”
Yet what’s striking about these stories is the emotional consistency between each soon-to-be mother. Whatever your circumstance, they seem collectively tell us, the experience of suddenly being responsible for a completely vulnerable being is what ultimately ties all parents together.