Where There Are No Curtains: The Importance of Privacy During Childbirth — A Young Tanzanian Woman’s Story

As told by Rose Mlay to Marissa Ware, as part of the Brave Voices, Bold Actions podcast

Rose Mlay is a Tanzanian midwife who has dedicated her life to helping mothers and newborns. But the abuses she saw women suffer through during pregnancy and childbirth led her to found a White Ribbon Alliance Chapter in Tanzania to bring respectful and dignified care to health facilities across the country. Although every woman’s right to privacy and confidentiality during maternity care should be upheld, overcrowding and a lack of privacy are part of childbirth for many women in Africa.

I witnessed a young woman giving birth in a labor ward in Tanzania. She must have been 20 years old, and she was giving birth for the first time. Our women face disrespect and abuse because they give birth in kind of a hall. The labor ward was like a hall where each woman could see what was happening to her peers in the next bed or at the far end of the ward. The people cleaning the ward could see the deliveries. Senior doctors, nurses, students, laboratory technicians — 10 to 20 strangers — and others filled this open hall and the young woman knew they would all see her naked.

A labor ward in Tanzania.

The medical attendant instructed the woman to open her legs because she was due to push, but the young woman held her legs closely, tightly in a panic. She didn’t open them, she didn’t like to expose herself in that way to strangers. Instead, she tightened her legs and closed her eyes.

The medical attendant shouted, “Open your legs just as you did when you were conceiving.” In tears, the woman closed legs even tighter, and the midwives slapped her face so hard. When people say that when you hit somebody, they learn, they don’t learn at all, they are just very much afraid, and they lose their thinking capacity.

This made things worse, because the young woman would not let her privacy be violated. She closed her legs tighter still. She and the baby were getting tired. A senior midwife was consulted and spoke to the young woman in a more polite and professional way. The baby was finally delivered through a vacuum extraction.

In Tanzania husbands or partners are not allowed in labor wards because of the overcrowding and lack of privacy. This lack of privacy is a violation of women’s basic rights as human beings, because no woman would like to be seen naked or be exposed to another’s nakedness when she goes to a labor ward for maternity care.

The majority of the women who give birth at home in Tanzania is because of issues like lack of privacy and things like that. They think that when you’re at home, you are in your home with one person and you do not have to expose your body to strangers.


Respectful Maternity Care Charter: The Universal Rights of Women and Newborns

Article 3 of the Respectful Maternity Care Charter:

3. Everyone has the right to privacy and confidentiality.

No one is allowed to share your or your newborn’s personal or medical information, including all records and images, without your consent. Yours’ and your newborn’s privacy must be protected, except as necessary for healthcare providers to convey information for continuity of care.

Legal authority
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, Article 17
Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1990, Article 16
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006, Article 22

Regional legal authority
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, 1990, Article 10
American Convention on Human Rights, 1969, Article 11
European Convention on Human Rights, 1950, Article 8
European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, 1997, Article 10

Learn more about the universal rights of women and newborns at https://www.whiteribbonalliance.org/rmcresources

Inspiring and convening advocates to uphold the right of all women to be safe and healthy before, during and after pregnancy.