Wednesday, 2 November 2011

#8 Superhuman pregnant women

FACT OF THE DAY: A pregnant Nepalese woman was observed carrying 36kg of firewood back to her village the day before she gave birth

Wow, just absorb that fact.


Your average backpacker’s rucksack weighs around 25kg. A suitcase being checked in at the airport gets a 'heavy luggage' sticker to warn the baggage handlers if it weighs over 32kg. Yet here is a short, heavily pregnant woman, carrying 36kg on her back.

Makes me feel quite bad about the fuss I made about carrying the shopping in from the car, or getting an empty suitcase down from the loft when I was pregnant!

The researcher who made this observation (Catherine Panter-Brick) was interested in finding out how rural women in Nepal coped with working and being a mother.

It appears that our challenge of combining work and motherhood is not unique.

She did her research in a remote area in the foothills of the Himalayas in North West Nepal, in a tiny village called Salme. I’m sure it’s very beautiful, but it sounds like a harsh life. The village is miles from anywhere so they have to be almost self-sufficient. This seemed to mean that everyone, including women – whether they were pregnant or breastfeeding – had to help out with the farmwork.  The harsh reality is that the village cannot afford to lose workers.

Seems like maternity leave is an unheard of concept among these villagers.

As Catherine Panter-Brick says “So little did working behaviour customarily change with pregnancy that it was difficult to tell whether or not a woman was pregnant, expectant mothers never fussing over their condition and clothing effectively disguising the changes in the waistline."  She goes on to tell us that "pregnancy is not announced in any way. It is watched for, and often noted from very subtle cues such as a slight shift in eating or sleeping patterns, or a tighter fitting bodice. But it is not acknowledged publicly”.

You know those often-told stories about women squatting down to give birth in the fields during their lunch break, strapping the baby on their backs and then getting on with their work? Well, this is one culture where that certainly happened.

Actually what I find almost as amazing as the feats of these Nepalese women, is the lengths the researcher went to. She spent a year in this village, keeping minute by minute record of activities on a sample of 58 village women! She observed each woman for several days during 4 different seasons of the year to see how the mother’s workload influenced her breastfeeding patterns. That’s dedication.

More on those results in a future post.

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If you would like to read more for yourself, have a look at:

Editors Vanessa Maher (1992) The Anthropology of Breast-Feeding; Natural Law or Social Construct Worcester UK : Billing and Sons Ltd

Panter-Brick, C (1991) Lactation, birth spacing and maternal work-loads among two castes in rural Nepal Journal of Biosocial Science 23:137-54

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