Confronting Maternal Mortality, Controlling Birth in Nepal

The Gendered Politics of Receiving Biomedical Care at Birth

One way of reducing maternal mortality in developing countries is to ensure that women have a referral system at the local level that includes access to emergency obstetric care. Using a 13-month ethnographic study from 2003 to 2005 of women’s social positions and maternal health in a semi-urban community of Hindu-caste women in the Kathmandu Valley, this paper identifies impediments to receiving obstetric care in a context where the infrastructure and services are in place. As birth in Nepal predominantly takes place at home, this paper identifies the following areas for potential improvement in order to avoid the loss of women’s lives during childbirth: the frequency of giving birth unaided, minimal planning for birth or obstetric complications, and delayed responses at the household level to obstetric emergencies. Focusing particularly on the last item, this study concludes that women do not have the power to demand biomedical services or emergency care, and men still viewed birth as the domain of women and remained mostly uninvolved in the process. As the cultural construction of birth shifts from a “natural” phenomenon that did not require human regulation toward one that is located within the domain of biomedical expertise and control, local acceptance of a biomedical model does not necessarily lead to the utilization of services if neither women nor men are in a culturally-defined position to act.

Social Science & Medicine, Volume 71, Issue 10, Pages 1719-1727