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Vassar College

Publication Date

Fall 2007

Program Name

Mexico: Grassroots Development and Social Change


Birth is one of the most fundamental moments of every human being’s life, and women have long been honored in the world’s societies as sacred and vital due to their important roles as life-givers. Because of the importance of birth in the lives and societies of human beings, birth and birthing practices can reveal many values of a culture and of the women within that culture and also demonstrate how and why those values are changing. The choices women make between traditional health care and more “modern” Western models are almost always influenced by the socio-economic and cultural conditions of a woman’s family, community, and nation. As a student of anthropology, I am interested in the choices that women make and how and why these choices affect the lives of women, their families, and their communities. I believe that these choices can and often do directly reflect a woman’s expression of her own human rights. Because childbirth is such a personal experience and is, at the same time, greatly influenced by external factors within a woman’s society, the availability of options for how a woman chooses to perform her birth shows the ways in which her society is caring for her and for her children. Societies in which mother-centered birthing methodologies, such as those supported by midwives, are respected and encouraged by the medical world have a clear and definite respect for the process of childbirth. In contrast, societies in which the methodologies of midwives and other traditional birthing attendants are discouraged by the government and the medical world, as is the case in Mexico, view childbirth as more of an illness than a natural, even beautiful, human process and give control to the attending doctor (more often than not, a male), rendering the mother a passive, helpless object. My interest in midwifery as both a tradition and as an alternative to the more technical and artificial Western biomedical model of birth stems from my belief that the choices a woman makes in regards to her body demonstrate her autonomy and reflect the degree to which her society allows her that physical and spiritual autonomy. In this essay, I explore the importance of midwives in the communities of Oaxaca and, more importantly, how the work of Oaxacan midwives is changing. I argue that midwives provide prenatal attention that focuses more on the mother than do the clinics and hospitals of both the cities and more rural areas. This mother-centered attention is critical in the preservation of women’s reproductive rights, and the decrease in midwife-attended births has grave consequences for the rights of women. Women must be able to make their own choices regarding their bodies, and the disappearance of midwives in Oaxaca reduces fundamental options for childbirth.


Maternal and Child Health


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