By Kiran Stallone and Steven Grattan, Buenaventura, Colombia, BBC News, April 23, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator
Feliciana Hurtado is one of the 40 traditional birth attendants that work in Buenaventura.
In the midst of the asphyxiating heat in Buenaventura, Feliciana Hurtado always comes by with a big smile in the neighborhood where she has helped many a baby to be born in the last 30 years.
She’s 68 years old, and she hails the mothers she has helped, and their children. Hurtado lives in a relatively safe area in the port city that has a majority black population. It’s on the impoverished and conflict-ridden west coast of Colombia, but her work as a midwife regularly takes her to dangerous and problematic neighborhoods.
Buenaventura has a long history of violence and conflict, which has led to its being known as the “horror capital” of Colombia.
Since 1988, armed gangs have disputed control of the routes bringing drugs to the port, and have carried out gruesome dismemberments in the so-called “chop houses”.
In 2014, the Colombian Army intervened in Buenaventura to take control over the mafias.
Some of the babies that Feliciana Hurtado helped to birth are teenagers now.
The intervention brought a brief period of stability, but now Buenaventura is suffering a new wave of violence, and midwives like Hurtado are taking a risk if they confront the armed combatants in order to help the women who live in violent areas when they give birth.
Hurtado remembers the armed combatants stopping her when she tries to go into a neighborhood that’s in conflict. “What are you here for? Who sent you? Which houses have you gone to?” they would ask her. “I told them that I was there to help a pregnant woman and which house I had to go to. Then they would go and verify. If nobody there was pregnant, I would have had a problem,” she recalls.
Helping a birth in the traditional Afro-Colombian way has been practiced on the Pacific coast of Colombia for centuries.
In 2017, the government declared it to be a National Heritage, in an effort to recognize and preserve these women’s ancestral knowledge.
In Buenaventura alone, there are at least 40 traditional Afro-Colombian midwives. In 1988, the women joined together to form the Pacific United Midwives Association, under the leadership of Rosmilda Quiñones.
Today the Association supports 250 midwives in the whole Colombian Pacific. They assist with 4,500 to 5,000 births every year.
Known as “Las Parteras” (The Midwives), they use traditional techniques and remedies in their work, such as “tomaseca”, a potent alcoholic analgesic that they prepare with medicinal plants to avert the pains of childbirth.
Many Afro-Colombian women say they prefer the services of these midwives rather than going to local medical centers.
“As soon as the contractions began, the midwife helped me. You don’t feel so alone. I wasn’t interested in going to a hospital because I would have felt isolated there,” says Helen González, a young woman 22 years old who gave birth to her son with Hurtado’s help nine months ago.
Helen González had her son with the help of Feliciana Hurtado.
Authority over the criminals
For other women who live in conflict areas and because of that, they can’t leave their neighborhood safely, there’s no alternative.
The activist for gender equality, Alejandra Coll, explains that the midwives often act as mediators to help the women give birth in neighborhoods controlled by criminal groups.
“When a pregnant woman needs a check-up or is ready to give birth, the midwives intervene with the armed men,” she says. “Frequently, they have some authority over them because they helped their mothers bring them into the world.”
Hurtado has years of experience in dealing with the members of the gangs.
“I go there and I say hi. I ask them how they are and I tell them I’m here to do my job.” She stresses that she is polite and friendly and that the armed men respond in the same way.
Even though the criminal groups seem to respect the midwives’ work, Asopraupa said that some of the women have suffered threats from the armed elements when they work in conflict-ridden neighborhoods.
They have also been trapped in the crossfire between groups fighting for territory.
“Once I couldn’t leave because there was a gunfight,” recalls Hurtado about a visit to a pregnant woman that was particularly difficult in an area where there were active armed groups.
Seated under a flickering light in her house, while her neighbors were listening to reggaetón at top volume in some gigantic speakers, Hurtado discreetly organizes all of her tools for helping with a birth on a low table. Rubber gloves, stethoscope, scissors to cut the umbilical cord are carefully laid out for a time when she may have to leave in a hurry to attend a birth.
The midwives are passionate about their work, which, for many of them, is an inheritance. Graciela Murillo, 60 years old, explains that her mother was a midwife.
She grew up watching her work and ever since she was eight years old, she wanted to follow in her footsteps. Now Murillo’s granddaughter wants to follow the work of her ancestors.
For Graciela Murillo, the work of a midwife is a family inheritance.
They say that the payment they receive varies, and that some of their patients can’t pay them anything. Even so, they take care of them.
“Sometimes we have to spend money out of our own pockets,” says Murillo, who has continued to attend and support pregnant women, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
But, in spite of the risks in a dangerous city like Buenaventura, the midwives like Murillo and Hurtado continue to be dedicated to their work.
“It’s a part of me. When I hear that someone is giving birth, there I am,” laughs Hurtado. “I don’t care about the risks or what time of the day it is.”