Mayan Women and the Politics of Health


In this article I examine the relation between the politics of reproduction and Mayan women within the social structure of the Guatemalan nation-state. In particular, the focus is on the abortion debate as engaged in the Church, Guatemalan ladina feminists, and a popular organization of Mayan women. (While the term "ladino" refers to the mixed-blood Guatemalan population, the term "Maya" designate the indigenous people who, in Guatemala, constitute a numerical majority. It is necessary to clarify that in spite of the unifying term "Maya," indigenous people of Guatemala should not be identified as a homogeneous entity, but rather as the representatives of a plurality of traditions, languages, and cultures of Mayan origin.) In 1993, the proposed law entitled, "Population and Development," was rejected because it was perceived as legalizing abortion. The misreading of this law, mistakenly referred to at the time as "the abortion law," was in part a reaction to the acceptance by the Guatemalan government in January 1993 of $7.5 million from the US Agency of International Development (USAID) in support of the Guatemalan Association of Surgical Voluntary Birth Control program. This episode triggered many anxieties among those who feared that the decree would implement the legal practice of abortion.

The political positions different groups took towards the use of the female body during this debate is revealing of Guatemalan power relations. Advocating the sacred values of the family, the Catholic Church, as the more conservative sector of public opinion, opposed the law. Rosalina Tuyuc, Director of the National Council of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), representing indigenous women's rights, opposed the law's threat to Mayan identity as maintained through free procreation. Ladina feminists advocated the attitudes of the health discourse which included the reshaping of traditional Mayan concepts of reproduction and patterns of infant care. The perception of ladino feminist idegoloy claims a Guatemalan women's identity through the distance taken from native women and their bodies. The main appeal to Mayan women to change their practices of procreation lies in the rationale that family planning empowers women, thus integrating them into the politics of the Guatemalan nation-state as subjects. The core of this ideology is that the dominant sector of society perceives the practices of indigenous women toward proceation as an aberration in contemporary times.

It is here argued that the underlyinfg rhetoric of health programs - governmental and non governmental-centers around the education of Mayan owmne who are assumed to be unable to reproduce "healthy" behavior among their families. I do not contest the overall notion and validity of health and development programs, nor the right of women to decide on birth control and abortion. Rather, I do argue against the rationale implicit in those programs that make the individual body of Mayan women and the collective body of Mayan people the objects of a postcolonial discourse. Both bodies are at the center of a normalizing discourse that utilizes techniques of control in order to make it "fit" into the Guatemalan nation-state.

The abortion debate's historical background includes the practices of sterilization without the consent of women, particularly Mayan women, who live in extremely poor conditions and in areas where the percentage of illiteracy is high. Despite the fact that constitutional article no. 40 on Social Progress and Development declares that family planning is to be responsible, free and voluntary, it is reported that the majority of women who agreed to be sterilized was not aware of the consequences of sterilization. The controversy on abortion and birth control techniques reported in the Guatemalan weekly magazine LA CRONICA sheds light both on a dominant ideology of assimilation and on the challenge to such an ideology presented by a radical indigenist position. While the state, along with the Association for the Family Wellbeing (APROFAM), supported the so-called law of abortion as a "humanitarian law that allows Guatemalans to improve their health specifically in the area of maternity," and the Church affirmed its approval of only natural contraceptive methods, CONAVIGUA approached the debate by defending the traditional values of Mayan culture. In part, CONAVIGUA opposed the belief that birth control methods would improve the economic conditions of the Guatemalan population and would thus contribute to fight against the endemic conditions of "underdevelopment." More central to CoNAVIGUA's argument, however, was the concept that abortion is an unnatural practice for indigenous women's role within their culture. In the words of Roasalina Tuyuc, "Maya principles demand from women the acceptance of pregnancy as a form of dignity, as something sacred."

For the Mayas, procreation is linked to cultural identity since it represents the "essence" or essentialist role of Mayan women. [A non-published study conducted by IDESAC (Instituto para el Desarrollo Económico y Social de America Central) in 1990 among indigenous communities in the department of Quiché, confirms that Mayan women cannot conceive themselves without a large number of children and that even their status in the community depends on the children.] Tuyuc's position is perceived by the Guatemalan ladina feminists as being induced by a political agenda rather than by thoughtful considerations on women's health. On this topic the perspective of ladina feminists, as stated in LA CONICA, coincides with the progressive sector of public opinion:

With this declaration, Tuyuc seems to be more concerned with increasing the numerical force of the ethnic groups. By maintaining this position, the indigenous leader keeps distance from any organization that defends the rights of women and attributes to her gender merely the role of reproduction of the species.

In short, ladina feminists considered Tuyuc irresponsible for perpetuating the role of Mayan women as procreators without control over their bodies. By maintaining this essentialist position through reaffirming the role of women as linked to their biological functions, however, Tuyuc exerts an act active subject within her own culture. (Spivak postulates the notion "strategic essentialism" as a strategy in the use of positivist essentialism by subaltern groups in order to achieve visibility. This position should be seen as an alternative to integration and marginalization since, through the reaffirmation of natural symbols and social stereotypes, subaltern people can create a place of their own.).

The debate on abortion should be seen as an attempt to convert the autonomous, mostly rural lifestyle of the Mayas into a dependent, industrial one. The incorporation of Mayan women into projects of health and development echoes the ladino nationalist discourse that is based on the normalization of the Mayan body, both as a social and individual corpus. The basic logic of a nation-state is to integrate all of its parts, including Mayan people who have historically constituted an autonomous body; the integration of the Mayas in Guatemalan society is critical for its functioning. On the one hand, it would guarantee a large, cheap labor force, while on the other, it would eliminate cultural diversity which is perceived by the dominant-ladino society as the main obstacle for the achievement of development. The targeting of Mayan women in the discourse of reproduction and birth control should be seen as the attempt by the nation-state to subjugate the Mayas. Hence, Mayan bodies and wombs are sacrificed once more for the constitution of another body, i.e. the nation-state.

The discourse on abortion presents many similarities to projects on health and development implemented by the government, private institutions, and international organizations in the rural areas. These projects converge ideologically into the national plan of modernization. Indigenous people, who are considered the embarrassment of the nation for their old and anti-modern traditions, come to constitute a target of this "progressivist" scheme. The debate on abortion, as it has been carried out in Guatemala in the last few years, reveals deeper cultural meanings that are comprised in the relationship among the body, its reproductive functions, and social institutions. In particular, the body of the Mayan woman becomes a place in which the Mayan and the hegemonic ladino traditions and cultures contest their authorities. The woman's body is, therefore manipulated as a space for planning and restoring the well-being and correct functioning of society. In other words, health discourses and practices on women's bodies are directly linked to the elite's concern for the formation of the modern nation and the ideology of capitalism.

Courses of consciousness-raising, or capacitación, imparted by leaders of social organizations present an irony that makes their central theme-awareness-a basis for manipulation. The need for a change is first instilled in the participant of these "educational" courses; the participant then vocalizes this belief as if it were her own. In other words, this kind of indoctrination is necessary for transforming women into agents of change. According to this logic, women need to be instructed in order to be able to function on their own. This ironic turn ultimately centers around a notion of dignity to be gained according to the rules played by the dominant paternalistic and patriarchal discourse. The incorporation of women into the nation, however, conceals an invasion of the women's body with the pretext of dignifying it and removing the "sickness" of the body that the Mayan population is thought to represent.

Although practices of birth control like those implemented by the Guatemalan government and supported by the United States might appear to benefit the rural and Mayan population as well as the nation-state, it is arguable that their intent is aimed rather at the continuation of a nationalist plan of assimilation of indigenous cultures through an attack on household economics. This proposition would be more consistent with practices of extermination of indigenous people undertaken in the past. This would not be the first time that the state had used reproductive practices as an attempt to exterminate and normalize indigenous people. A previous example of the connection between reproduction and assimilation policies is the practice of abortion and sterilization conducted in local clinics and hospitals during the 1980s. Mayan women who were interviewed often mentioned that in the 1980s. Mayan women who were interviewed often mentioned that in the 1980s, the most brutal period of violence, pregnant indigenous women would be forcefully hospitalized and their unborn were surgically aborted. Historically, assimilation by extermination has long been the practice of the Guatemalan nation-state. The disadvantaged conditions in which the rural population live are the legacy of Ríos Montt's (dictator from 1982-1988) policy towards the indigenous people. He publicly announced:

It is necessary to eliminate the indigenous population because it constitutes the social basis of counter insurgency: We need to kill the Indios.

With the disappearance of a majority of men and the destruction of productive lands, many women and the surviving population resorted to migration. The old communities often disintegrated and the sense of collectivity that also represented a communal economic support was lost. The economic conditions of Mayan people deteriorated during the brutal violence of the 1980s. The internal war fought by the army and the revolutionary forces devastated the indigenous lands and other main forms of subsistence of Mayan rural economy.

In the context of modernity, "awareness" is presented to Mayan people as the "ticket" to a better future. The promise of the Church, of local health organizations, and of ladina feminists to Mayan women is one of a better life. Such a promise, however, could also read as the act of giving up one's identity-an identity that for Mayan people is still grounded in a particular perception of the female body and the role that derives from it. The discourse of progress and emancipation from the natural/biological functions of the body can be interpreted, therefore, as a metaphor of possession of Mayan women's bodies by the nation-state. Its rhetoric of self-improvement and development leads to an assimilationist discourse which ultimately converges with the hegemonic sphere of Guatemalan society that looks down on traditional Mayan culture in order to play out its supposed cultural superiority. Ethnicity, gender and class interest metaphorically and literally upon the native body. Since the discourse on reproduction is based on a narrative of progress, the other is the subject who is native, poor, and female.

Stated in another way, the discourse on health and birth control addresses Mayan women, that sector of the population which is perceived as being a-historical, unauthentic, and parasitic to the nation-state. As expressed by a doctor who works in an indigenous community, "Indian women are promiscuous and overtly sexual and the only concern of indigenous people is to eat. If they have food they are quiet." The Indian is basically presented as a "deviant" who needs to be normalized through medical practices, development programs, and violent repression. Thus, the body of this deviant represents a form of social pollution that needs to be contained. The stereotyped images of Mayan women created by the dominant society, i.e., the prostitute and the poor ignorant "Indita," seem to justify the discourse that aims at elevating these women to a consciousness that is ultimately part of a discourse of assimilation. While the former image-the Mayan woman as a prostitute-justifies the exclusion of native women from the nation-state, the latter, infantilized image, provides health discourses with a rationale for the assimilation of the Mayas into the nation-state. The ethnic as a category is thus collapsed into class and gender, as if the intention of the proposed reproductive policies were to supplant old discriminatory categories with new ones. Distinctions and biases in the dominant ideology have, therefore, switched their focus from "ethnic" to "class" as if to transcend the Mayan/ladino dichotomy. It is this blurring of ethnic identity that Tuyuc condemns in her defense of Mayan traditions.

In conclusion, just as the Mayas are attempting to dis-internatlize the legacy of the "invasion" (as the Mayas refer to the Spanish conquest), the medical discourse on procreation invades the Mayan bodies in order to create a "healthy social body." Similar to the practice of stereilization in the 1980s, the potential legalization of abortion comes to represent the threat of the extermination of Mayan people. To some, Tuyuc's position is anti-modern. In the context of the politics of assimilation, however, Tuyuc raises her voice against the use of the body of the Mayan woman as a means of nation integration and as a cause of death of Mayan traditional culture.

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