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Unsafe Motherhood: Mayan Maternal Mortality and Subjectivity in Post-War Guatemala

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Volume 21

Fertility, Reproduction and Sexuality: Social and Cultural Perspectives

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Unsafe Motherhood

Mayan Maternal Mortality and Subjectivity in Post-War Guatemala

Nicole S. Berry

260 pages, 8 illus., bibliog., index

ISBN  978-1-84545-752-5 $135.00/£99.00 / Hb / Published (October 2010)

ISBN  978-0-85745-791-2 $29.95/£23.95 / Pb / Published (December 2012)

eISBN 978-1-84545-996-3 eBook

View CartYour country: - edit  Buy the eBook! $29.95info on epub formatRequest a Review or Examination Copy (in Digital Format)Recommend to your LibraryAvailable in GOBI®


Unsafe Motherhood is a finely argued monograph. It does what it sets out to do well: offering valuable insights on a topic of global importance.” • JRAI

“[This] is an extremely valuable book that sheds light not only on the obstacles to making motherhood safer, but to improving the health of poor populations in general. By challenging the reader to seek to understand how other people see themselves, their bodies and their biological processes, Berry’s book promises to improve how aspiring global health workers think about health and development. Written in clear, simple language, the book should be read by undergraduates in anthropology, sociology and development studies (including economics) all the way to professionals in these fields. Unpretentious but deeply thoughtful, Berry’s book provides the field of medical anthropology with an exemplary piece of work.” • Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale

“This book will be of interest to anthropologists working in the South American area, but also to those scholars with an interest in medical anthropology and reproduction more broadly. In exploring the relationship between policy, practice and everyday experience, it makes compelling reading for policy-makers and practitioners, providing a critical perspective on why initiatives around maternal and infant heath succeed – or fail.” • Anthropology in Action

“This book is both theoretically sophisticated and ethnographically rich. The analysis of the underlying assumptions of the various international health policies and their potentially negative consequences, biologically and culturally, should be required reading not only for Maya and Latin American scholars but especially anthropology and medical students and professionals in the areas of maternal health, global health, and international development.” • Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“She [Berry] has an accessible narrative style, richly illustrating the theme of each chapter with examples from her in-depth research, supported by an extensive bibliography.” • Human Reproduction and Genetic Ethics

“…a compelling account of maternal mortality and maternal health care among indigenous populations in Guatemala.” • Sarah Pinto, Tufts University


“[S]heds light not only on the obstacles to making motherhood safer, but to improving the health of poor populations in general.”—Social Anthropology

Since 1987, when the global community first recognized the high frequency of women in developing countries dying from pregnancy-related causes, little progress has been made to combat this problem. This study follows the global policies that have been implemented in Sololá, Guatemala in order to decrease high rates of maternal mortality among indigenous Mayan women.

The author examines the diverse meanings and understandings of motherhood, pregnancy, birth and birth-related death among the biomedical personnel, village women, their families, and midwives. These incongruous perspectives, in conjunction with the implementation of such policies, threaten to disenfranchise clients from their own cultural understandings of self. The author investigates how these policies need to meld with the everyday lives of these women, and how the failure to do so will lead to a failure to decrease maternal deaths globally.

From the Introduction:
An unspoken effect of reducing maternal mortality to a medical problem is that life and death become the only outcomes by which pregnancy and birth are understood. The specter of death looms large and limits our full exploration of either our attempts to curb maternal mortality, or the phenomenon itself. Certainly women’s survival during childbirth is the ultimate measure of success of our efforts. Yet using pregnancy outcomes and biomedical attendance at birth as the primary feedback on global efforts to make pregnancy safer is misguided.

Nicole S. Berry is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Subject: Anthropology (General)Medical Anthropology
Area: Latin America and the Caribbean


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