Times and dates vary
“Every day, around 800 women die during or after pregnancy and childbirth and for every woman who dies, around 30 more women suffer complications that affect their well-being. These women cannot remain as statistics. Their voices must be heard.”
Professor Nynke van den Broek,
Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health [CMNH], Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine [LTSM]
BIRTH is a global theatrical project designed to do something about the massive global inequality in health care for mothers and babies around the world. A creative partnership between the Oglesby Charitable Trust, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and LTSM, the BIRTH project commissioned seven female playwrights from the UK, USA, India, Syria, China, Kenya, and Brazil to explore their country’s approach to the care of pregnant and newly-delivered women and their babies. All the plays are available to be used by charities, NGOs, and educational establishments as tools to raise awareness, encourage debate, and share knowledge, and can be downloaded from www.birthdebate.com
Emma Callander is the Creative Director of BIRTH, and the moving force behind the presentation of four of the seven plays as the Traverse Theatre’s 2017 Breakfast Plays – scripted readings with only one day’s rehearsal of each.
In Choices by Stacey Gregg (UK) actress Tessa Parr invites us to meet two women, Oonagh and Holly. Their lives are very different: we dip in and out of both stories and it soon becomes clear that Oonagh is coming to the mainland for an abortion [illegal in Ireland, resulting in 4,500 women a year coming from Northern Ireland to England for a ‘procedure’] while Holly is desperately trying everything she can to become pregnant. Everyone has a story, we are reminded: are we aware when other people are controlling our story? – the expectations that all women should be mothers; the feeling that “childless women are tricky”; the social media groups where ‘support’ can end up increasing the pressure on those who fail to become pregnant; the taboos around talking of the experience of giving birth and, more importantly, on non-births, miscarriages, stillbirths… Both women’s stories end “happily” – i.e. they successfully give birth – but is this the only possible outcome for women? Where are the choices of the title, and who makes them?
In Ouroboros by India’s Swati Simha two village women describe how they have killed a snake and destroyed the eggs inside it – “they had to”. A new doctor has arrived to take up her post at a local health clinic, where she is quizzed by a woman who turns out to be the local midwife: why has she come – to help the village, or to help herself? There is a strong contrast between the traditional practices of the midwife, developed to deal with a situation in which there is no conventional medicine, no electricity and no fridge to keep vaccines cool, no clean tools, and the ‘educated’ view of the doctor, concerned to follow protocol, to rely on her training and knowledge, and disregarding/ discounting anything the midwife might know as ‘superstitious practices’. The villager women are slowly revealed to be two of the many who have died in the village – they are just ‘no.7’ and ‘no.13’ to the doctor, whose real mission is to carry out sterilisation procedures, enforcing the belief that “a small family is a happy family”, paying 200 rupees for every woman who is brought for sterilisation, ignoring the lack of sterile surroundings and instruments and ultimately receiving an award for achieving targets…
In Syrian author Liwaa Yazij’s Q & Q I spent half of the play wondering when ‘birth’ was going to put in an appearance: we were seeing the effects of war via the interrogation of three young women by those purporting to be assisting them while also trying to screen for terrorists in disguise: it’s only gradually that we hear of their pregnancies and birth experiences.
This was a much more aggressive presentation, more graphic and hard-hitting than the two previous plays I’d seen. The UK is certainly more comfortable by comparison with the situation both in India and Syria – better facilities are available and thus can be taken for granted, even if some are only available to those who can afford it: In India there is little or no choice: health care centres are provided but without proper staff or equipment, and all is ordered by ‘them up there’ who have no idea of or concern for the reality of the village women’s lives. In war-torn Syria there is absolutely nothing. People are living in total chaos; rape is used as a weapon of control; birth by caesarean is only possible when electricity is available; all the things – nappies, clean water, sterile conditions – we take for granted are simply not available: in the refugee camps things are, if possible, even worse. The interrogators appeared completely uncomprehending of the lives and cultures of the women being interrogated: they were surprised when each of the three in their own way despaired of ever receiving the help they hoped for, and asked each other “what can we do?” The only answer – “Bring in the next ones”: they were three out of ten million….
I’m glad Kirsten Greenidge’s So Far as a Century’s Reach was my fourth play. It focused on pregnancy and birth, and ended with the joyful announcement of a new baby, to lift our spirits as we leave the theatre after what’s been a pretty gruelling four mornings…
We saw vignettes from African-American people’s lives and their differing attitudes to pregnancy, health provision and health care during the last century. A 1916 husband wanted ‘modern medicine’ not the old folk ways for his pregnant wife; a present-day academic, specialising in natural childbirth practices, was unable to concede that his wife might want to have an epidural; a poor plantation worker rejoiced that one of his neighbour’s sons had ‘gone to be a doctor’ and that a new hospital had been built just down the road when his wife had problems with her sixth labour. A mother of three wondered what it would have been like to have given birth naturally, as her sister did; a woman contrasted her time as a medical student where everything was done to “move things along” with her experience as a midwife, where the aim was always to help the mother to open up and bring new life to birth – “I never learned that in med school”…
As well as highlighting the huge inequalities in maternal health care provision, all four plays have an overarching theme of women having control over their own bodies taken away from them, and their feelings and opinions ignored. The series asks so many questions: Where is choice? Where is listening to what any woman says or wants? How do we make informed choices when much of the information we receive comes from those with vested interests?? Is there right and wrong? Or is there just ‘different’? WHO GETS TO CHOOSE?
I should have liked to see the other three plays, and see what women playwrights from Brazil, China and Kenya had to say. The Traverse’s four had different perspectives and raised many questions: there are no simple answers. I hope that the people who came to see the plays don’t simply dismiss them, but read more, discuss, think: what can I do??? There is always a choice, even if it is to do nothing….