Background: women's underutilisation of professional care during childbirth in many low-income countries is a serious concern in terms of achievement of maternal Millennium Development Goal 5. Objective: to explore women's perceived own authority within the modern and traditional spheres of childbirth in a high maternal mortality setting on the Arab peninsula. Yemen is a signatory to the Millennium Development Goals and one of 10 countries chosen for the United Nations Millennium Project. In Yemen, home birth has remained the norm for several decades in spite of high maternal mortality and morbidity rates. Design: a multistage (stratified-purposive-random) sampling process was used. Two hundred and twenty women with childbirth experience in urban/rural Yemen were selected at random for interview. Answers to the question 'Did you feel that you were the authority during childbirth?' were analysed using qualitative content analysis. Setting: the governorates of Aden, Lahej, Hadramout, Taiz and Hodeidah. Findings: three main themes emerged from the analysis: (i) 'Being at the centre', including two categories 'being able to follow through on own wants' and its opposite 'to be under the authority of others'; (ii) 'A sense of belonging' with the categories 'belonging and support among women in the community' and 'the denial of support, the experience of separation' and (iii) 'Husband's role in childbirth' including one category 'opportunity to show authority over the husband'. Authority was experienced primarily among women within the traditional childbirth sector although a general complaint among women delivered by trained medical staff was the loss of own authority. Key conclusions and implications for practice: these findings show that women's authority during childbirth is decreasing in the context of Safe Motherhood and the expansion of modern delivery care. This is likely to be an important reason why women underutilise professional care. Acquisition of knowledge from the traditional childbirth sector regarding how women exercise authority to facilitate childbirth would constitute an asset to skilled delivery and Safe Motherhood. The findings from Yemen are likely to be relevant for other low-income countries with similar persistent high home delivery rates, low status of women, and high maternal mortality and morbidity rates. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd.
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