Reproductive Health and Culture among the Mapuche and Tehuelche of South America

Article excerpt

This article studies the reproductive health of native rural Argentinean women of Mapuche and Tehuelche origin, and its relationship to their social and cultural environment, with particular reference to how traditional beliefs and practices interrelate with the public health system and state policies relating to reproductive health. The methodology used is to employ life stories and half-structured interviews in the institutional setting of the family and the community.

Key Words: Fertility, reproductive health, reproductive customs, Mapuche Indians, Tehuelche Indians, Argentina.

Reproductive Health and Cultural Rules This study is part of a more ambitious interdisciplinary project investigating the social, cultural and biological reproduction of a rural population in Argentine Patagonia, which is unique for its composition, consisting mostly of Indian groups referred to as Mapuches and Tehuelches.1

The study aims in particular to widen and deepen the examination of some aspects of women's reproductive health and its relationship to the socio-cultural context of belonging. For three years we have strived to know the reproductive behavior of rural women of the Rio Senguer Department in the Province of Chubut. The information so far collected may lead us to infer a differential fertility in favor of women who claim aboriginal origin and live in the reservation. Moreover, the statistical data compiled by the team reveals an important teenage fertility and an early-peak fertility structure. Contrary to this, women who can be identified as Mapuches or Tehuelches and live in the district of Rio Mayo have in some cases expressed a desire to reduce their number of offspring.

The importance of the issue may be related to at least two fundamental questions. The first has to do with the scarcity of studies carried out in Argentina about the reproductive health of the rural population in general, and about the aboriginal ethnic groups in particular.

The second relates to the fact that in 2001 Argentina started implementing a Reproductive Health Program in some provinces where there is a high fertility rate. The implementation of these health policies in Argentina, and some decades ago in large areas of Latin America (e.g., Peru and Brazil), involves deepening and improving our knowledge of the reproductive social practices of the population. For this purpose, it is preferable for the programs to be applied among the poorest and less informed social classes, which would include the two Indian groups discussed here.

The criteria used to determine the aboriginal condition of individuals included in our study were: self-identification and place of residence, since these are considered most suitable.

Toward a Theoretical Approach

a) Reproduction of Population and Social Behavior Our theoretical perspective sees reproductive behavior as a form of biological behavior that is culturally manifested. Accordingly, looking into women's reproductive behavior leads into the health-disease-assistance process; i.e., the field of reproductive health.

Moreover, as with every human phenomenon, the social practices that affect the health of both mother and child must be regarded as a result of a joint system of interrelated instances or levels. These levels, with a varying degree of complexity and abstraction, include the social reproductive process, the sociocultural perception process, and individual decision-making. When we refer to the social reproduction process we mean the living or survival strategies carried out by domestic units in order to face, according to certain material living conditions, the problem of existing or living, an aim that in many cases will not go beyond the level of surviving" in a certain moment of the development of the economic system. We should point out that these are not occasional arrangements made by families to face times of crisis, "but general arrangements linked to and conditioned by the sort of current development in a specific society. …

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