Matters of Life and Longing: Female Sterilization in Northeastern Brazil

By Machado-Borges, Thais | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Matters of Life and Longing: Female Sterilization in Northeastern Brazil


Machado-Borges, Thais, Ibero-americana


Anne Line Dalsgaard. Matters of Life and Longing: Female Sterilization in Northeastern Brazil. Critical Anthropology Series. University of Copenhagen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001.

Is there a connection between the wish to be seen, recognized, and respected as a person and the practice of female sterilization?

Anne lie Dalsgaard answers this question as she approaches the subject of women's agency under harsh social conditions. Her book and the material it presents are the result of eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork (in 1997 and 1998) among women in Camaragibe, a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Recife, Northeastern Brazil. The author sets off by contextualizing the practice of female sterilization, or tubal ligation, as it is most commonly called in Brazil. By reporting on conversations and everyday situations, Dalsgaard describes the spread of this particular contraceptive method. Abortion is an illegal practice in Brazil, and different kinds of reversible birth control methods were deemed by the women in the study to be unsatisfactory either because they were not easily available, or because they were not reliable. Moreover, several of the women in Dalsgaard's study lacked information and knowledge about possible alternative contraceptive methods, and they also often lacked the power to negotiate in sexual relations. Ethnographic material showed that female sterilization was not only a subject that could openly be discussed in public, it was also "perceived as a natural aspiration for any woman" (p. 108). Indeed, local statistics show that seven out often women using contraception in the state of Pernambuco (where Camaragibe is situated) were sterilized. National statistics from 1996 estimated that 27.3 per cent of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 were sterilized.

Until 1997 sterilization was not available on demand. It was legally permitted in cases when a future pregnancy would pose a risk for the woman. Nowadays sterilizations (for persons older than 25 years or with a minimum of two living children) can be obtained at private hospitals - if the patient or her family has the means to afford paying for the procedure -, and at public hospitals - if the patient is considered to be a high risk case or if she is helped by a third person who then intervenes on her behalf and obtains a procedure. In other words, even if tubal ligation is a widely spread contraceptive method in Brazil, it is not so easily obtainable. Most of the women in Dalsgaard's study were nevertheless determined to go through a lot of trouble to undergo such a procedure. …

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