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Birth and Maternal Health Around the World

Corbis

In America, where 99% of births take place in the hospital and the national c-section rate is at an all-time high of 34%, we’re pretty used to the medical model of childbirth. Well, it turns out that we’ve exported this model to the far corners of the world; in Japan, Korea and China, Western-style hospital births have all but replaced traditional home birth in the last few decades. But in other countries and cultures, old ways and rituals remain. In the book Childbirth Across Cultures, edited by my very own mom, Helaine Selin gathers portraits of the new ways of giving birth, as well as the old, in the non-Western world. Here, she shares fascinating childbirth traditions from around the world, and be prepared: they range from sweet to shocking.

Uganda: The Women’s Battle

In, Uganda, Western-style birth is on the rise, but home birth is still the norm; around 60% of women give birth outside the hospital. Here, childbirth is called Lutalo Lwabakyala, or women’s battle—pain is expected, normal and natural, but women are expected to transcend it, to win the battle. Childbirth, according to Ugandans, is a test of endurance.

Women are expected to be stoic during both pregnancy and childbirth, showing no fear or weakness, and you won’t get any sympathy for morning sickness, sleeplessness, or any of the other physical side effects of pregnancy, let alone the emotional ones. Fear is considered a childish emotion, weakness is unacceptable, and a pregnant woman who can’t perform her normal chores and duties is sent back to her parents’ house until she feels stronger. They have a saying: A man likes you when you are healthy. 

Birth here is everybody’s business, not a private family matter. The highest honor is reserved for women who deliver naturally and alone; a c-section is seen by the entire community as a failure. If a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth, it’s viewed as her own fault, a result of her weakness. Thus, while maternal mortality rates are slowly reducing here, they’re still high: 310 deaths per 100,000 live births.

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