Karen Sandberg and Professor Jini Roby, Social Work
Dar a luz, meaning “to give light,” is the Mexican phrase for giving birth. The equation of light with the birth process reveals its significance to the Mexican people. Internationally, female midwives educated and assisted women in the birth process, making it a specific sphere of women’s influence. Midwives played an important role in the development and well being of their communities as well: they “served as healers,” using herbs and other medical treatment’s to promote general health (Sapiro 206). As such, health care has been one of the few areas historically where women have, in addition to their homes, contributed to the development of their communities; unfortunately, however, it is also an area which research has neglected.
Assisting in the creation and care of families continues to be the specific work of midwives in many rural communities. By studying the role of these women we examine a significant way women have contributed to their environment. Midwifery is less common in the United States now, and doctors, hospitals and technology have replaced women healers, familiar settings and natural methods. In many ways, we have lost the aft of midwifery. Recording the traditions and contributions of rural midwives should be a historical and cultural priority, especially since this method of health care prevailed before the 17th century globally (Sapiro 184), and continues to dominate over professional medicine in many developing nations.
My objective was to study how midwifery contributes to development in a rural Mexican village by documenting the life and contribution of Marta Gutierrez, a midwife and folk healer from Xalitzintla, Mexico. By studying and relating the experiences of one midwife, and her effects in the progress of her family and community, we saw that women have been and will continue to be agents for development even in their traditional spheres.
The study focused on a qualitative approach through ethnography. I lived with the subject of the study, Marta Gutierrez for two months, during which time I
1) collected facts from her past, including how she decided to become a midwife and the training she received
2) recorded interviews with herself, her family and members of the community about her contribution to communal development
3) observed her current work and how it continues to influence the village.
After much research, my main questions emerged: What does the case study of Marta’s life teach us about the influence of midwifery on community development? How does midwifery empower the women who practice it and the women who receive its services? Should we promote midwifery as an agent for development and empowerment?
James Spradley’s Participant Observation appropriately served as the methodological framework to address these questions, because case examples and cultural traditions are areas for qualitative study. He claims that ethnography is more than just observing people, it involves learning from them, which is what I claim to be doing by studying Marta and comparing my observations to current studies of midwifery. Later, I researched the history of midwifery as the foundation on women’s health and how its practice may empower both women health providers and their female patients. This background information of midwifery, combined with the qualitative research on Marta Gutierrez enabled me to focus on the cultural practices associated with midwifery, both internationally and domestically.
This study reaffirmed my position for the need to practice culturally sensitive and gender appropriate work. Social workers seek to empower vulnerable populations by expanding their ability to be self-determinant and by increasing their resources. Some of the most vulnerable groups are the impoverished. Since women are twice as likely as men to be poor during their lifetimes, social workers especially focus on helping women overcome obstacles. Furthermore, social workers dedicate themselves to representing those “without a voice,” or the people whose interests are not represented in decision-making groups. Children especially need advocates since they are politically impotent. Additionally, social work is concerned with providing quality health care for all people as a basic human right. Midwifery correlates with social work’s priorities to empower women, fulfill the needs of children and improve health care.
Most Medicaid caseworkers are social workers. These professionals need to understand the personal, social and economic ramifications of choosing a childbirth attendant. For example, in my hometown in Loveland, Colorado, many women receiving Medicaid assistance go to a Women First clinic where certified nurse midwives attend them. Their caseworkers encourage this because it is less expensive and the women receive quality care. Several of these women are immigrants, and prefer to be seen by a midwife than by an obstetrician. Social workers also deal with immigrant and minority issues, and midwives serve a disproportionate number of minority populations. My study will encourage social workers to become familiar with the advantages of midwifery, especially among low-risk, immigrant women.
I submit that many international midwives are helping their communities develop, and are continuing the tradition of midwifery that has aiding women in childbirth throughout human existence. Many cultures equate birth with “giving light,” and the term midwife means to be “with [the] woman” during this experience. Midwifery preserves childbirth’s intimacy, and continually empowers both the practioner, and the community that she serves. Promoting midwifery is an important social work issue because midwives continue to serve vulnerable populations in a comprehensive, natural and culturally sensitive manner.
- Sapiro, Virginia (1999). Women in American Society: An Introduction to Women’s Studies.