Carrying Life: Malawi photo series reveals the burden of pregnancy and childbirth without clean water 

Carrying Life: Motherhood and Water in Malawi, a striking outdoor multimedia exhibition by award-winning British-Egyptian photographer, Laura El-Tantawy, open to the public until 14 April at More London near Tower Bridge. 

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. 

Captured in El-Tantawy’s distinctive and emotive style, these powerful photos highlight the hopes and fears of women waiting at their local ‘guardian shelter’ to give birth. Expectant mothers, and their family member or ‘guardian’, wait at these shelters in the hospital premises, before going into labour and moving to the wards. However, until WaterAid’s intervention, with support from the Wimbledon Foundation, many of these facilities lacked the clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to give birth safely. 

Enala, 19, lives near Kangolwa health centre and gave birth a year ago, before the centre had clean water. She describes her experience:  

“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.”    

Delia has given birth 14 times, but sadly eight of her children have died, some in childhood. She describes waking up every day worrying about water. Her worry is understandable as tragically, the 56-year-old lost her 7-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.”   

For Eliza, a young mother, who gave birth at Ntchisi district hospital before taps and toilets were installed described her experience as “the longest four days”. Now conditions have improved, she says:  

“I’ve seen the new toilets – they are good! I was visiting someone at the guardian shelter, and I thought “wow, things have really improved here”. Before I couldn’t stand the sight of the toilets, women didn’t have the dignity they deserved, now it’s a really big improvement.” 

These stories are among the collection of images and moving portraits displayed across lightboxes and digital screens, giving a unique glimpse into the lives of the women in their final stages of pregnancy, childbirth, and the journey into motherhood and beyond. Through this new work, El-Tantawy not only offers an intimate insight into the lived experiences of mothers across the generations but also explores the extraordinary bond between women giving birth in such unsafe circumstances.    

Photographer Laura El-Tantawy said:  

“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. 

“In Carrying Life, I wanted to explore through images the emotional toll it takes on women to wake up daily and worry about where to get water; to feel the burden that your life and your family’s life is dependent on a bucket of water and its source.  

“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.”   

Paige Murphy, Head of The Wimbledon Foundation, said:  

“The Wimbledon Foundation is proud to support WaterAid and this remarkable photo exhibition. It is shocking that a quarter of health centres around the world do not have clean water on site and four out of five in the poorest countries lack decent toilets. 

“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.” 

Laura Summerton, Photography Manager at WaterAid, said:  

“Every two seconds a woman around the world gives birth in a health centre without clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene – that’s a massive 16.6 million each year facing the risk of needless infections. No woman should have to endure this injustice. 

“By bringing Laura El-Tantawy’s formidable photos to the public’s attention, this issue can gain the attention it deserves. The result is a deeply moving yet empowering collection that serves not only as a rallying cry for action but also as a celebration of the bond between women across the generations as they navigate this important life stage.” 

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, Malawi, 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. 

WaterAid has now provided these essentials in ten clinics in Ntchisi, four of which were provided with funding from the Wimbledon Foundation, official charity of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and The Championships, supporting the installation of taps and toilets. 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. 

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. 

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