This Powerful Photo Series On Birth Traditions Around The World Sheds Light On The Global Water Crisis
In a captivating new photo series, the international nonprofit WaterAid explored several birth traditions around the world to help raise awareness about the need to make clean water accessible in all health care facilities, but especially in the world's poorest countries. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born each day around the world, and in the United States, a baby is born every eight seconds, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the reality is, not every baby is born into a clean environment and, to put it simply, that's not OK.
One in three hospitals and clinics don't have access to clean water, according to WaterAid, and that's troubling for several reasons. "Without water, there are no sterilized instruments, no place to use a toilet, and no way for women to wash themselves or their children," Sarina Prabasi, CEO of WaterAid America, tells Romper. "Without clean water, women and children are at risk of disease and spend hours collecting water instead of getting an education or earning income to improve their lives."
WaterAid works to "combat the global water crisis" and Prabasi explains the organization's inspiration behind the photo series was rooted in its mission. "We wanted to show different ways that birth is celebrated around the world, and to underscore that access to clean water is vital during childbirth and early in a child’s development," Prabasi tells Romper.
"It’s unfathomable to me, as a mother to two young children, that unhygienic birth conditions claim the lives of nearly half-a-million newborns every year," she added. "We can and should do better."
So while looking through these photos, Prabasi says she hopes they "will give people pause to think about all of the women around the world giving birth without clean water," raising awareness that access to it is, indeed, a human right.
In this photo from WaterAid's campaign, a 21-year-old mother from Madagascar, Nome, holds her newborn baby while wearing a "masonjoany" — also known as sandalwood of Madagascar — mask to "protect herself from the sun and bad spirits."
"In our culture, mothers like me and our newborn babies are not allowed to go outside during the first seven days after the birth. The mother is still suffering and the baby is still very fragile and at risk," Nome said. "But once we have made it through these sacred critical seven days we step outside for a short time to face the reality of life and the bright sun."
According to WaterAid, Nome gave birth in her village as she couldn't make it to a health center in time. While she went to one for prenatal check-ups, it did not have running water or a toilet.
Lack of water is not uncommon in Madagascar; according to USAID, 58 percent of its "people lack access to safe drinking water and nearly half of all households live without sanitation facilities."
In this striking photo, a 22-year-old mother in India named Rinku is seen applying "kajal," a traditional black paste, to her baby's eye.
Rinku explained, "The common beliefs behind applying kajal are that it makes the baby’s eyes bright, large and attractive; it soothes, cleanses and protects the eye against infections and the sun’s glare. It is also believed that applying kajal to the baby’s eyes wards off evil spirits."
According to WaterAid, Rinku delivered her baby in a "government hospital," which had running water and toilets, though, at home, their water comes from "a groundwater supply system."
Use of clean water is an issue in India, as The Water Project states that only 33 percent of its people have access to "traditional sanitation" and more than 21 percent of the "country's diseases are water-related."
In Malawi, mothers — such as 26-year-old Lucia photographed above — may partake in the fascinating and comforting post-birth ritual of eating a postpartum porridge made from soya, maize flour, and sugar. Lucia's mother, Melise, explained: "I will make the porridge for Lucia for one week, as it’s light and easy for her to eat with stomach pain."
Lucia gave birth at a health center in Kasungu, which did not have running water, toilets, or clean bathrooms until 2015. According to WaterAid, the health care facility was provided with water through the nonprofit's Deliver Life funding.
Efforts such as WaterAid's are needed; according to USAID, while 80 percent of the people in Malawi have access "to an improved source of drinking water," there are still about 4 million people in the country who "lack access to safe water."
In the rural area of Kirfi, Nigeria, pregnant women, once they go into labor, may practice the Nana Fatsuma tradition. As seen in the photo above, a stick with finger-like twigs is put into a bowl of water until it dissolves. Once it's turned into a solution, the expectant mom will drink it to speed up delivery and "protect her and her unborn child."
"When the woman is in severe [labor] we perform Nana Fatsuma," Alti, a widow with 10 children, five of whom are alive today and three of whom she delivered using this tradition, said. Nana Fatsuma is named after a wife of the Prophet Muhammad, according to WaterAid.
"A woman in labor and her child might die if she fails to follow this tradition or she might have excruciating pain including a tear," Alti explained.
Nigeria's access to clean water has improved over the years but many are still living without it. In fact, according to UNICEF, just 26.5 percent of the country's population "use improved drinking water sources and sanitation facilities."
In the photo above, 30-year-old Vida from Ghana holds her 1-month-old son. The trees in the background are symbolic of "Kosoto," a traditional ceremony in which a solution from boiled bark is poured over a new mother to "protect her from stomach problems in future pregnancies."
"A female relative will pour the warm water over the woman, alternating it with cold water," Vida explained. "They say that if you don’t complete Kosoto, you will get stomach pains during any future pregnancies. I’m not sure if it works, but it’s something that our ancestors always did, so we continue it."
Vida, a mother of four, gave birth in a health care center that had both water available for washing and drinking and toilets with her latest delivery, according to WaterAid. Her previous births, however, she "had to find a quiet place outside" when she needed to use the bathroom and there was nowhere to wash herself after delivery.
In Ghana, according to the nonprofit Water.org, 67 percent of the population "lack access to improved sanitation or are entirely without toilet facilities."
In Sweden, new fathers — such as 31-year-old Sebastian, as seen in the photo above — may choose to cut their baby's umbilical cord to "feel more involved in the birth." After doing so, according to WaterAid, the father will lay the newborn on the mother's chest.
"We do it because it is a tradition," Maria, who gave birth by C-section, said. "It feels like a big responsibility for the father. It is important that the medical instruments used are clean and [sterilized], which relies on clean water at the hospital."
Like in other developed countries, most people in Sweden have access to clean water. According to The Guardian, 100 percent of the population has "sustainable access to improved drinking water sources" as well as "improved sanitation."
The American family photographed above is seen pouring holy water over their 4-month-old baby's head in a Baptism, a religious ceremony that welcomes new life into Catholicism.
"The holy water was poured over her head by the priest as he blessed the baby, dissolving her of original sin," Marisa — who gave birth in "a spacious room with bathtubs, ambient music and essential oil diffusers" — said of the tradition. "We want faith to be a part of her life and that was our primary motivation."
Though the health care system in the United States is often said to be "broken," as the Los Angeles Times previously reported, it does have one of the "safest drinking water supplies in the world," according to the CDC. However, some cities across the country, such as Flint, Michigan, struggle with contaminated drinking water, as Global Citizen reported.
In the photo above, a 5-week-old baby in Scotland is given a coin for "good luck" from her Nana. "It is a Scottish tradition. I definitely had coins put in my pram as a baby and I remember people doing it to my sister, too, when she was in the pram," Amanda, who had a water birth in a hospital, according to WaterAid, said.
"Water played a huge part in my [labor] and after the birth," she said. "I drank water, I delivered in water and I washed in water afterwards."
People in Scotland are not lacking access to clean water. In fact, the "quality of public drinking water" in Scotland is "amongst the highest in the world," according to The Scotsman.
In the photo above, a Ugandan family is seen drinking local beer — made from sorgham, also known as a cereal grain plant — from a single gourd as "a sign of peace and togetherness as they welcome the new baby."
Sagal, a 24-year-old mother of four, gave birth to her youngest at a Catholic health center, which had water for bathing and toilets as well as nurses and midwifes, according to WaterAid. Once she returned home and her newborn's umbilical cord fell off, the local beer was "brought in a calabash for people to drink."
"After drinking the local brew, clan members join together in singing and dancing as a sign to welcome the new clan member," Sagal explained. "It is believed that when these rituals are not performed the baby has many problems in life."
Although the location where Sagal gave birth had water and proper plumbing, many in Uganda, specifically 61 percent, don't have access to "safe water" and 75 percent lack "access to improved sanitation facilities," according to Water.org.
In the photo above, a Japanese mother named Natsumi — who gave birth at a general hospital that had both clean water and toilets, according to WaterAid — is seen feeding daughter during the tradition of Okuizome, a traditional food ceremony celebrating the baby being 100 days old.
"The family prepares traditional dishes which each have a symbolic meaning and pretend to feed him or her for the first time," Natsumi said. "We wish that the baby will never starve throughout its life. We decided to do this tradition because we wish our daughter good health and happiness. We also want to respect our old tradition."
Clean sanitation and access to safe drinking water is common in Japan and, according to WaterAid, the Japanese government is "currently the largest water and sanitation donor in the world."
In the photo above, a 2-week-old baby from Zambia has a necklace called "kakonde" placed on her to "protect her from vomiting, [diarrhea], and bad omens," according to WaterAid.
"This is tied around the baby's neck immediately after birth," 18-year-old Chuuma, who gave birth at a local clinic that she felt had "insufficient" toilets and water, said. "This necklace stays on the baby for up to nine months... If I don't place this necklace on her, my baby will be sick most of the time."
Many in Zambia face struggles with clean water and proper sanitation. According to UNICEF, only 61 percent of the population use "basic drinking water services" and 31 percent use "a basic sanitation service."
The lack of safe water and clean sanitation is far too prevalent across the globe, and living without those comes with health consequences. For example, according to The Independent, "one in five newborns who die in their first month of life are lost to sepsis or infection — which can often be prevented with safe water and rigorous hygiene practices."
Prabasi tells Romper the "water crisis is a solvable problem," but each country's situation needs to be assessed and handled differently.
"It’s not just about drilling wells or creating infrastructure, it’s about changing people’s behavior and their way of thinking," Prabasi says. "We don’t work in isolation. WaterAid works with many partners including governments, other NGOs and the private sector to improve access to water and sanitation, which help lift people out of poverty. Government and community buy-in are essential to sustainable progress."
Helping improve water access around the world doesn't just come from governments and nonprofits, though; everyone can do their part to help raise awareness. As Prabasi suggests:
Doing your part could mean starting a discussion with your school-aged children about how many people don’t have access to water in the developing world. If you are celebrating a birth in your own family, consider making your own tradition to support a mother across the globe who may not have access to the facilities that we so often take for granted.
"A birth is a cause for celebration. And water is a vital part of keeping children and parents healthy," Prabasi added. If you'd like to make a donation to help newborns and new mothers, you can visit WaterAid's donation page here.
While tackling the global water crisis may seem monumental, Prabasi says the solution "is within our reach."
"It will take more awareness, funding, and global collaboration to reach everyone, everywhere with water, sanitation, and hygiene," Prabasi tells Romper. "We won’t stop until it’s done."