HOW DO WE RECLAIM OUR BODIES?
This question is prominent in my mind as I reflect on my meeting yesterday with a wise woman of the Yorta Yorta people in central Victoria. I won't use her name until she has read what I have written and gives me permission. But what I want to say does not refer uniquely to indigenous women - it's about all women. How do we reclaim our bodies? How do we reclaim our right and privilege, as women, to give birth to our children and to nurture them at our breasts?
We sat together for several hours, and talked. A few years ago there had been a proposal for a birth centre, where indigenous and 'non-i' women could give birth. That proposal was not accepted. There is a centre where indigenous women have prenatal care from midwives and doctors, but that has not improved births for many - the rates of caesarean are high, and women come away from the birthing experience feeling shamed and distanced from their own bodies.
As we chatted a baby woke up and was hungry. Her mother was busy, so I held her close and held the bottle of white stuff. While enjoying the exquisite beauty of the little one in my arms, I could not feel anything other than sadness that she is not able to draw nourishment and warmth from her own mother's body.
The wise woman is an elder, mother, grandmother, aunty, and sister. She has sat on many committees, representing the voices of her people to government and community bodies. She is sad that her people have lost their knowledge of what was done in birth before white people came. She is sad that her daughters are feeling shamed in stead of feeling powerful in giving birth. She is sad that the beautiful breasts of these women are hidden away from their babies.
What could we do? Is there anything that can be done to enable these women to reclaim ownership of their bodies?
We talked about birth centres. Birth centres can be good, with a philosophy of protecting and supporting healthy normal birth, but there is a high rate of transfer for complications. The women who are transferred out to standard obstetric care can feel abandoned.
We talked about the midwives. Some midwives come, and try to provide better and more woman-centred care, but ... They leave after a while.
We talked about surveys, reports, summits, and funding from government departments. The wise woman looked tired, and I felt dispirited - we have been there, done that. Nothing much has changed.
Then we talked about women's business. The older women helping the younger women to give birth, and care for their babies. Spaces where only women could go. A house where they could come and learn to express themselves in arts and crafts, and tell their birth stories. A house where they could feel safe as their labours become stronger, with their sisters and aunties to encourage them. This could be a key to reclaiming their bodies.
The wise woman said she would like women to get together in a women's space and take their shirts off. They could keep their bras on if they wanted to, but you have to start somewhere. This was a new thought to me. I asked her why some of her sisters in the Centre are now having ceremonial dances with their breasts exposed. It's something that they have done to reclaim their culture.
We didn't talk for long about this, because something happened to interrupt our train of thought. But a seed idea had been planted in my mind - is this another key to reclaiming our bodies? What would happen if these women reclaimed their breasts? The older women could lead in ceremony and ritual, and encourage the younger women to cherish their breasts. What would happen if the mothers allowed their babies to find their breasts? What would happen if the mother of this bottle fed baby asked her baby to take her breast once again? I believe it could be done.
When we asked the woman at the BaBs group [http://www.birthingandbabies.info/index.html ] what they valued in the BaBs program, one said, "I can see other mothers breastfeeding. I can see other breasts!"
I believe the only way any woman can improve her chances of avoiding caesareans, epidurals, and other medical management of birth is to take responsibility for their own birthing. I call it Plan A "I intend to give birth under my own power, without drugs or stimulants, and I ask everyone who is with me to respect my plan." The woman herself has to be strong. The wise woman said that in the old days women had to be strong. They had to keep up with the group. There were no short cuts.
We need to return to those old rules for anyone who wants an opportunity to give birth. The non-i women don't need to learn the ceremony of other people groups, but we do all need to claim back the ownership of our bodies.