is a self-taught documentary and portrait photographer
(Words by Carole Evans)
In preparing this article I asked a group of mothers what pregnancy means to them. The most common words, out of almost 100, were miracle, and blessing. In Western civilisation, being pregnant and having a baby is considered a privilege, but this is not the case elsewhere in the world. Mothers of Yemen is a series of photographs taken by Abbie Trayler Smith when she was on assignment in Yemen in 2008, and they show pregnancy, and indeed, the role of women, in a different light.
In Yemen, women are subject to a gender disparity which is one of the worst in the world, and the prospect of pregnancy is very different. Fully veiled from head to toe in black, most women are anchored to their homes, out of work, and out of public spaces and institutions. Often uneducated, they marry young, and pregnancy is unexpected and unplanned. The average woman has 4.4 children, compared to 2.7 in the Western World. Childbirth is at home, alone, with the help of female relatives or the Traditional Birth Attendant (the oldest woman in the village, whose only training is experience). There is a 17% chance of dying during childbirth.
The images in this series are perhaps shocking on first view; fully veiled women, dressed in black, are seen marching to class, consulting charts and cowering round plastic mannequins. Sharp scissors hang on a dirty tap; a black figure handles a screaming baby on a metal tray; a glimpse through green curtains of a face, a leg. The figures could easily be mistaken for our media’s view of the terrorist; faceless, sinister, secretive, while the environment makes our Western sensibilities a shudder a little, especially as we begin to understand what it is we’re viewing.
The figures in these images are far from terrorists; they are in fact a group of young women who are being trained by Oxfam to be community midwives. Set up in the region of Sah in 2007, the proviso is that the trained women return to their village and become an important member of the community; providing a safe, trained hand during childbirth, with the ability to spot the danger signs in time to send patients to the nearest hospital. The 20 girls undergoing the training are the rare educated ones; to pass the entrance exam there are two criteria – to be able to read and write, and to not be pregnant. “If I were not here, I would be finishing high school and waiting to get married”. (Jasmine, aged 17, trainee midwife).
In the absence of facial expression, it is the women’s hands which express the excitement, emotion and hope of their occupation. These photographs depict a solidarity and a closeness between the women (both student and patient) which is touching. In a country where women are not allowed to show their faces, let alone any other part of their body, this is a perfect job for a woman. Male doctors would not be permitted to assist childbirth.
“Attitudes from men about girls studying are changing. Our older sisters did not get the opportunity that we have – they got married and are now at home busy with their children, busy being housewives.” (Ashwa, 20, trainee midwife)
The scheme is part of Oxfam’s larger commitment to Yemen’s rural communities, providing education and training where it is desperately needed. Since March 2015, Yemen has been subject to it’s own conflict, and we can only hope that initiatives which empower women can somehow survive amongst the political unrest. These photographs are testament to the power of such charities and the good they are doing in poor countries, as well as the power of women to rally together and support one another in times of need.