London-based photographer Jenny Lewis launched her series One Day Young in Hackney, East London, capturing women with their babies in their home environments within 24 hours of giving birth. She was asked to extend the project in Malawi, southeast Africa by WaterAid in order to bring awareness to the difficulties faced by women during childbirth in a place where there is no clean water in health centres or people’s homes. Here, she reflects on an important, empowering, and surprisingly heartening project… 

The original One Day Young project in East London was such an intimate experience, shooting other mothers within my own community, sharing the experiences which weren’t so different from my own. Extending the project to Malawi, I was interested to see if a woman would still look triumphant and empowered in the face of real adversity; however, I was also aware that being in Africa I was on the outside of someone else’s experience, looking in. I was worried the intimacy and openness that was so obvious in the original series would be impossible to capture.

One Day Young was born out of a desire to support and empower women. To show a balanced view of birth and give a positive message about the strength of women to help dilute any fears. To celebrate this transition and shine a light of respect onto motherhood. How could I walk into a culture I knew nothing about, to celebrate birth and motherhood when their experience was so different to my own, when birth – as the statistics show – puts them at such a high risk, both them and their babies.

It took one girl to trust me, and within a few minutes they had all sealed the approval from their elders and were lining up excited to proudly show off their babies

Still I was excited about the opportunity to share these women’s experience and hear their stories. From the first day in the health centre when was introduced to five women who had given birth that day, my fears about being an outside,r unable to connect were dispersed almost instantly. One lady, Alinafe, beamed the most beautiful warm smile at me and jumped up to ask her mother-in-law’s permission to have a portrait taken. It took this one girl to trust me and to get the others to open up, and within a few minutes they had all sealed the approval from their elders and were lining up excited to proudly show off their babies.

I shot them there and then while the translator explained that I would like to take them home and take a portrait of them there. I wanted the backdrop of their lives not the institution of a health centre. To have time to talk to them, understand what their lives were like, give them the choice to choose what they wore and how they were represented. There was quite a difference to the London project as noone really had any possessions or furniture so there weren’t many clues in the backgrounds to build up their identity, but I did notice the body language and relief to be home was huge so I’m really glad I stuck to this format.

It also allowed me to see what their lives were really like. The responsibility of carrying water for the whole family falls to the girls and women and this is no easy task. The 10 women I spoke to walked between a 40-minute to a six-hour round-trip to collect water everyday and none of them had access to clean sanitised water; so even with this massive effort the water they used to bathe themselves and their newborns was not safe for them to drink or clean from infection.

Girls can’t go to school until they have collected water so it makes a huge impact on the extent to which girls are educated, restricting their chances to progress

Life is incredibly hard from the second they are born – a fight, a struggle. I also noticed this struggle seems to be even harder if you’re born female. Water is a woman’s issue; if you have sons rather than daughters there is noone to help you collect the water, just more people to collect it for. The girls can’t go to school until they have collected water so it makes a huge difference to girls being educated and restricts their chances to progress.

WaterAid is set to put a pipe into this facility in April with the money raised from the Deliver Life campaign. As well as changing the mortality statistics for mothers and babies overnight, I can see how this will change so many other things, not least the women feeling like they have finally been given the respect to be able to give birth in a clean safe environment. The fear of dying, or their baby dying, being greatly alleviated as trust is restored. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet these woman and hear their stories. Their triumph at overcoming the challenges of childbirth can be seen in their faces a mixture of fierce love, defiance and utter joy, not so different from the emotions I have seen across the faces of the mothers I captured in the UK.

To see more of this and the original One Day Young project, visit jennylewis.net and follow her on Instagram and search the hashtag #onedaymalawi. WaterAid’s Deliver Life appeal aims to reach 130,000 mothers and their families around the world with safe water . Every £1 donated to the appeal until 10 February will be doubled by the UK Government – meaning it can help twice as many mothers and babies stay safe and well. For more, visit www.deliverlife.wateraid.org

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