Strengthening Indigenous Midwives' Traditional Knowledge

A key part of Alianza Arkana’s work is the use of educational programs to help preserve and promote traditional indigenous knowledge, which is becoming increasingly threatened by exposure to Western beliefs.

For the Shipibo-Konibo, and like many indigenous peoples, the women are an important carrier of specialist knowledge. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of childbirth. For centuries, older Shipibo women have worked without material reward in their communities delivering babies and teaching women about their and their babies’ healthcare.

As is happening all over the world, we are witnessing an increasing medicalization of the process of birth, which leads to a devaluation to this kind of traditional, oral, female knowledge being unrecognized and devalued by the (largely male) medical professions.

In many Shipibo communities, furthermore, the women are reluctant to go to Western medical posts and/or the communities are too far away from Western forms of health care. The local midwives, therefore, continue to provide an important service to their communities. Their work is based on their wide experience of traditional ways of giving birth and an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants.

Explaining female anatomy. In conjunction with the USA-based NGO, Shipibo Joi, and a senior administrator – who is also a trained midwife – from the local hospital in the indigenous area of the city of Pucallpa, we have recently initiated a project to work with Shipibo midwives to:

• Investigate and record their use of medicinal plants.
• Work with them to identify their needs for further training.
• Provide forums to share experience between midwives from different communities.
• Recognize the value of their work and co-create with them an intercultural certification program based on indigenous knowledge combined with the best of western childbirth practices.

The first stage of this project was a pilot research project carried out by Marleni Garcia, a trained Shipibo nurse. She interviewed two groups of midwives from different communities, as well as an elder midwife from another community. She asked them about the medicinal plants they used in their work, which are freely available in the rainforest, as well as what kind of equipment and further training they needed.

Learning about nutritionBased on the results of her investigations, we organized a one-day training event for six midwives from the community of San Francisco on 13th December. Mariana Orta, a Mexican nutritionist working for Alianza Arkana, presented a highly interactive session on the importance of adequate nutrition for mothers and their babies. An important part of her teaching was the cooking and eating together of breakfast and lunch, which were nutritious, low cost and easy to prepare.

Isabel Gomez, the administrator from the local Hospital Amazónica, also gave a very participative session on possible complications arising in the birth process and what could be done about them.

The training was a great success. All the midwives were keen to learn and participate. As an aside, I could not help comparing the warmth and conviviality of this event, led by women for women, with the more formal male-dominated training events I have attended, which are often a succession of presentations by male presenters to a largely passive audience.

We are now planning a further two-day event for midwives from four different communities to continue the training and talk with them about developing a certification process.

Deborah Rivett, Tuesday, 15 January 2013

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