I have three children and my birthing experience for each of them was different, but it was my first, having Musa, that sticks in my memory the most. Like many first-time mums, I had hoped that childbirth would be a quick, relatively stress-free experience, after which I’d be able to go home with my beautiful baby and pick up where I’d left off. Oh boy, was I wrong! It took an exhausting 72 hours for Musa to make his entrance, and just when the doctors were preparing me for an emergency C-section, he came shooting into this world. It was messy and it took me a long time to recover, both mentally and physically.
For me, giving birth was far from the idealistic birth plan I had carefully crafted for myself. But one thing I certainly took for granted throughout the chaos of my marathon labour was that clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene would be available in the hospital.
In St James’s University hospital, Leeds, (known as Jimmy’s), it was a given that I would be able to drink clean water whenever I chose during those intense and thirst-inducing hours of labour. I remember, too, how wonderfully refreshing it felt when it was finally over to have that first shower on the ward. Crucially, I felt safe. The midwives and health professionals involved could wash their hands with soap and keep their implements clean throughout the process. I never had any concerns that Musa or I would come to harm due to a lack of hygiene.
Sadly, though, mothers in many parts of the world face a very different reality. One in four health centres globally don’t have clean water on site and almost half are without adequate handwashing facilities. Giving birth in such unhygienic circumstances means that mothers and their babies are often at risk of catching otherwise preventable infections such as sepsis, meningitis and tetanus. The consequences are tragic. Every minute, a baby in its first month of life dies from an infection caused by a lack of safe water and an unclean environment.
To shine a light on this devastating reality, this week international charity WaterAid created a poignant light installation of pregnant women on the site of the former General Lying-In hospital in London’s Waterloo – one of Britain’s first maternity hospitals. This was to call attention to the shocking reality that each year 16.6 million women globally are giving birth in a health centre without adequate clean water, toilets or basic hygiene. To put that into perspective, that’s one woman every two seconds.
No woman in the 21st century should have to risk giving birth in such unhygienic conditions, but more than 1 million deaths each year are associated with unclean births, while infections account for 26% of neonatal deaths and 11% of maternal mortality.
In my experience, midwives and doctors go above and beyond the call of duty, working heroically to give the best possible care to their patients, whatever the circumstances. But despite their efforts, it is nearly impossible for healthcare workers to protect their own health and provide safe maternity care without the basics of clean water, decent toilets and soap for washing hands.
It’s difficult to comprehend this indignity. In Mwogo health centre, in Rwanda’s Bugesera district, midwife Devota Byukusenge told WaterAid: “For a midwife with no water in maternity services, you can imagine what we go through. Everything is at risk, be it the mother, the newborn; everyone is at risk of getting infected because of the lack of water.”
Musa’s birth was long and complicated, involving epidurals, agony, tears and sutures. Dawud’s and Maryam’s were no walk in the park either. But I can’t begin to imagine any child coming into this world without these basics to hand.
It does not need to be this way. That is why I am supporting the Water Means Life appeal, to help ensure every mother has a safe and clean environment in which to give birth. Mothers just like Valéria who, thanks to a WaterAid project, was able to give birth to her baby, Pierpina, at the Mecanhelas health centre in Niassa Province, Mozambique, with clean water. Valéria described the birth as “wonderful” because she was able to use clean water before and after to clean herself. As she put it: “I feel good that the doctor can wash his hands with soap and water, because by washing his hands, the doctor is preventing [the spread of] diseases. Water saves lives. There is no life without water.”
We owe it to mothers such as Valéria and their babies, as well as healthcare professionals globally, to make sure clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene are in every health centre around the world. Wherever in the world you give birth, a clean, safe and dignified experience should be every mother’s right, and access to clean water is the first step.
Nadiya Hussain is a chef, author and presenter
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