Of Women, Children, and Midwives

17 Oct 2012

Browsing through an outdoor market on a sunny Saturday, I noticed a young woman and three of her daughters walking in front of me.  The girls, trailing behind their mother like ducklings, looked to be around 6, 9, and 12.  All three were carrying cloth-wrapped bundles on their backs in the signature way Guatemalan women carry infants and babies.

I hope the 12 year-old is carrying a sibling and not her own child, I thought.

When they stopped to haggle for vegetables I passed them by and got a closer look at their bundles.  The mother was indeed carrying an infant.  But the girls had towels enclosed in more towels, then wrapped in the carrying cloth.

Huh. Perhaps they’re going to set up a towel-selling stall.

I forgot about the duckling family until I attended a lecture on women in Guatemala.  Young girls are trained, starting excruciatingly early, for “women’s work”.  Those daughters were practicing baby-carrying for when they start their own families.  Which in this country would probably be all too soon.

In villages in Guatemala the birth of a child is celebrated with a fiesta.  For a boy child, a rooster is slaughtered and the party is a grand affair.  If it is a girl child, the party is smaller.  Boys are more valued for several reasons.  They carry on the family name.  They are kept in school longer and have higher earning potential.  Culturally, a boy child means that the father is physically and sexually strong.  For nine months everyone in the village is praying for a boy.

In clinic we ask all our female patients when their last period was.  When I met Aide she was 24 years-old and had come for an evaluation of her headaches.  When she told me her last period was two months beforehand, I asked her if she could be pregnant.  She was not.  Two months ago she went to El Centro de Salud for a depot birth control shot.

Pero, por favor, no lo diga a mi esposo.”  But please don’t tell my husband, she asked me.  They already had five children and she didn’t want any more.

The gender of a child has implications for the mother’s subsequent happiness, and peace. After a girl, the husband may want to have another baby right away.  And may keep wanting babies until the long-awaited boy is born.  Four of Aide’s children are girls.

Various lecturers, on different topics relevant to Guatemala, have said the culture is more accepting of violence as a natural part of life.  More than once, one of the clinic’s Guatemalan doctors has seen a female patient excuse a husband’s abusive behavior like this:

Es mi culpa.”  It’s my fault.  “He is the head of the family and I disobeyed him.”

Which gives me the distinct impression of wives being more like children than life partners.

If a wife does make an official legal complaint about her husband’s abuse, then what?  Perhaps they get divorced and he goes to prison.  But then the family has lost its breadwinner.  Alone she will have to support a family of perhaps many children, and she might not have made it far through school.  It may be better to suffer the violence.

Last week I spent a night in Doña Ana’s midwife’s clinic.  I was lucky and before the night was old a woman arrived in labor.  After I was told I could examine the patient, I began to introduce myself.  Doña Ana interrupted me, telling me that the patient didn’t speak Spanish.

Something I was ignorant about before I came to Guatemala was the circumstance of languages.  Apparently the Spanish influence wasn’t as sweeping as I thought.  The majority of Guatemalan’s don’t speak Spanish as a first language.  Most have one of the existing 22 Mayan dialects as a native language; Spanish is learned in school.  This language ravine is deeper for women, who are pulled out of school earlier to learn to carry babies, clean houses, weave fabrics, and make tortillas.

In the English-speaking world of my grandparents’ generation a woman like my grandmother went by Mrs. Carlos Sibug, the abbreviation Mrs. stemming from “mistress of” Carlos Sibug.  My mother took my father’s last name but uses her first name, as Mrs. Carmen Araneta.  I do not plan to take my husband’s last name.

In Guatemala most people have two given names such as María Luisa.  Last name number one comes from her father’s last name; last name number two from her mother’s.  Her complete unmarried name could be something like María Luisa Vasquez Puac.  Then when María Luisa marries her boyfriend, whose last name number one is Rodriguez, her name becomes María Luisa Vasquez de Rodriguez.  Her mother’s last name is dropped.  The conjunction de is added before her husband’s name.  De meaning “property of”.

In the lecture on women in Guatemala, we were told of a law passed in 1999 which allows a woman to choose to take the name of her husband.  (So before 1999 she legally had to.)  However women are still subject to a lot of discrimination if they choose not to.  Liz, one of the teachers at the school, tells a story about going to the bank with her children in tow.  She gave the banker her unmarried name.  “He looked at me, looked at my children, then looked back at me como si fuera una prostituta. O fácil.”  As if I were a prostitute. Or easy.

A well-respected role available to women is that of midwife.  About 70% of births in Guatemala are managed by these traditional birth attendants.  Often midwives do not just oversee deliveries but become the general medical practitioners of their communities, treating everyday ailments of men, women, and children.  However their knowledge does not come from formal training.  Many cannot read.  Their knowledge has been passed down through generations, taught by female relatives who were midwives before them.  A traditional midwife’s tools for a birth are a bucket of hot water and towels, to clean and to swaddle the baby.

Sometime ago a recently-graduated American doctor was studying at Pop Wuj.  She spent a lot of time working with Doña Ana in her clinic.  One night as they were attending a birth the baby came out blue and not breathing.  Doña Ana began rubbing an onion over the baby’s body, the traditional thing to do in these cases.  It did not work.  After the doctor got over her initial shock and panic, she began to perform rescue breaths.  The baby lived.

Medicine was a second career for this doctor; she had money in savings from her first.  After this traumatic experience, she donated a good chunk of it for Pop Wuj to conduct public health projects.  Especially midwife trainings in neonatal resuscitation.

A note on the pictures:  The day after posting this blog entry I went to Pop Wuj’s family support center to teach an English class.  After my class I found two-year-old Ami walking around with her doll tied to her back in the traditional way.  I asked her how her “baby” was.  She replied, “Shhh. Él está durmiendo.”  He’s sleeping.


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3 Responses to Of Women, Children, and Midwives

  1. Amy says:

    So many great stories/info in one post Nicki!
    FYI–Amy is only 2! She’ll be 3 in February. 🙂

  2. Annie says:

    We’ve represented a few women from Guatemala in our pro bono immigration practice, making the argument that domestic violence is so prevalent in Guatemala and the police / government are so unlikely to act to protect women from it that women should be considered a protected class for purposes of seeking asylum in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security under the current administration has agreed that it can be, but proving it can be very difficult, especially when all of the relevant evidence is out of the country. In our cases, we’ve had the judges agree that women suffering from domestic violence could constitute a protected class, but they also find that we don’t have enough evidence to support our claims that our clients specifically belong to that class and the government of their home country actively declined to protect them. Still, the courts and DHS seem fairly willing to let the cases drag on in the appellate courts for years without pushing for a conclusion and granting work visas in the interim, so it has the effect letting the women and their children stay for a long time, though obviously without the benefits of asylum and citizenship. It’s frustrating, but better than it used to be. This is a much more detailed summary:


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