She breaks paradigms and leaves a trail: The contested terrains of midwifery activism

The contested terrains of midwifery activism1

Hanna Laako

Introduction: Midwives and contentious politics

This chapter explores the reemergence of Mexican middle-class midwives from the 1990s onwards. These midwives are part of broader (advocacy) networks and women’s collective action that seek to strengthen and deepen the reach of women’s human rights in childbirth in Latin America. This chapter is one of the first academic efforts to specifically explore the political activism of midwives in terms of both social movements and human rights related to the contemporary reemergence of midwiferies in Mexico since the 1990s (Laako 2016). In this book, this chapter connects Chapter 1 on the history of Mexican midwiferies, which led to their present search for professional and other autonomies, and Chapter 5, which probes the roles of midwives in campaigns for the humanization of birth and against obstetric violence.

This chapter particularly shows how human rights are a contested terrain for social movements, internally and externally, and how midwifery forms part of such struggles. At the same time, the chapter unfolds the concept of autonomy as embedded in the midwifery movement. I suggest that the autonomous midwives’ movement is relevant because, even though midwives are relatively marginalized in Mexico, this movement makes visible both struggles for autonomy and for women’s movements for reproductive rights in Latin America. Contemporary midwifery activism in Mexico, as unfolded in the politicization of autonomous midwives, sheds light on the differences, tensions and possibilities of political networking among women in the Global South. These midwives are in a situation of politicization that intertwines several rights as well as aspects of class and ethnicity. Therefore, the midwives’ situation is one in which these aspects can be studied conjointly in the context of social movements.

To develop my argument, the chapter is structured as follows. I begin with contextualizing midwifery in Mexico and present the methodology of the study. I then outline the principal theory of social movements, especially in terms of the link—which is fundamental for this chapter—between social movements and human rights. This section shows that the human rights claim has become a substantial topic in recent scholarship on networks of transnational activism and international advocacy. To examine the scope of the midwifery movement, I particularly use Keck and Sikkink’s theory (2000) about advocacy networks to emphasize awareness and the mobilization around political networking, women’s rights and creation of alliances. I continue by arguing that midwives’ political activism can be understood, theoretically and empirically, as a social movement. 1 explain briefly how the collective actions of midwives have been studied in the frame of social movement theory. This discussion shows that midwives extend their mobilization beyond the defense of their own profession, while shedding light upon the question of which birth knowledge systems predominate in Mexico. The link between human rights in childbirth and midwives will be revisited in terms of obstetric violence and humanization of birth in Chapter 5.

Based on fieldwork results and triangulation of various research materials, I then discuss the reemergence, politicization and political activism of autonomous midwives in contemporary Mexico from the 1990s onwards. While being challenged by the competing meanings of midwifery in Mexico, the midwives in my research were politically organized and perceived their political advocacy to be not only for autonomous midwifery but also for women’s autonomy in general as part of human rights. I define autonomy here as self-determination and self-government, which can be professional, individual and collective. To support these findings, I include two herstories of autonomous midwives, which outline the motivations behind their political action. In the case of Mexico, midwifery activism fundamentally includes the need to engage with the situation of Indigenous peoples.

Social movements are generally defined by the existence of collective action. They are understood as self-aware groups with flexible organization—not necessarily formal associations or organizations, or of those of masses—that mobilize against entities they perceive as authorities and/or elites, regarding actions or situations that they consider to be misguided or unfair. In most cases, the activists comprise grassroots groups, networks and organizations that come together to make visible or to resolve an existing social conflict. (See for examples Tarrow 1998; Keck and Sikkink 2000; McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001; Ibarra, Goma and Marti 2002; Smith 2008; Juris and Khasnabish 2013.)

However, social movement scholars have emphasized that the emergence of collective action cannot be explained only by the existing injustices (Tarrow 1998; McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001; Ibarra, Goma and Marti 2002). Rather, the emergence of collective action implies the existence of a common awareness of these perceived injustices. In other words, social movements are born either because the opportunity structures within a society have changed, or because a newly emerged interpretive framework for the existing conditions has generated collective action. Indeed, social movements have formed an important field of research because they have been perceived as agents that produce social change by practicing contentious politics (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001). In other words, they produce social change through collective

She breaks paradigms and leaves a trail 67 political struggles that target the authorities (the official system or elites) as objects of their claims. Although they are not yet a fully recognized field in the study of social movements, Mexican middle-class midwives and their activism have engaged in precisely this sort of struggle during recent decades.

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