Maternal and newborn health

Mother and child at Nna’ Tranquilina’s new traditional birth centre in Llano del Carmen

Throughout the world, maternal and newborn mortality among indigenous peoples is poorly documented but generally considered to be much higher than in the overall population.

Experts think this situation would improve if pregnant women and their newborns could be referred with sufficient time to government or private health services in case of complications during delivery or shortly after childbirth. Over the years, national and international health agencies have gone even further to advocate that all pregnancies  be closely monitored by medical personnel and all births supervised by skilled professionals with at least 10 years of general education and several years of specialized training. In some places this has led to maternal health policies and programs that are almost coercive in their approach, combining intensive health surveillance with the threat of withdrawing financial incentives offered by popular poverty alleviation programs. These approaches have the effect, deliberate or unintentional, of  turning indigenous peoples away from long-held practices, like giving birth at home, with little regard for their views and important consequences for cultural stability and mental health.

Indigenous women, particularly in remote areas, have shied away from government health facilities for a number of reasons –ill treatment, poor and irregular services, disregard for their traditions, fear of unnecessary episiotomies and c-sections. In other communities, where indigenous people have lost their mother tongue or where they live closer to hospitals, birth traditions seem to be receding. From a biomedical standpoint, this could be hailed as a success, but it certainly comes at a high cost for many cultures. Many indigenous peoples link the imposition of hospital births and the evacuation of women from remote communities for childbirth to the marginalization of their knowledge and practice, with serious social and cultural consequences.

We are set on a different course. Through Safe Birth in Cultural Safety, CIET is attempting to draw on both indigenous and biomedical knowledge and practices to improve maternal and perinatal outcomes in Mexico. We hope to demonstrate that this culturally respectful way of doing things can be of use in indigenous settings across Latin America.