maternal societies

Where Women Rule: Fact or Fiction?

“I do think that women could make politics irrelevant; by a kind of spontaneous cooperative action the like of which we have never seen; which is so far from people’s ideas of state structure or viable social structure that it seems to them like total anarchy — when what it really is, is very subtle forms of interrelation that do not follow some heirarchal pattern which is fundamentally patriarchal. The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity, yet I think it’s women who are going to have to break this spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation.”

Germaine Greer

For many years, scientists hypothesized that matriarchal, or maternal, societies in which women rather than men enjoyed greater political power existed before the current patriarchal structure of most modern societies. Since history is written by the winners, evidence of such societies was not easy to find. Although many second wave feminists believed it to be true, the hypotheses was criticized by others including Camille Paglia and Cynthia Eller. The question of how many maternal societies have existed throughout history remains unanswered.

Types of Maternal Societies

Scientists and academics make a distinction between matrilineal societies, matrifocal societies, and matriarchal, or maternal, societies.

  • In a matrilineal society, property and the family name are passed down through the mother’s family. In Spain and many other Hispanic countries, when a woman marries, it is common for her to have two surnames, the first her father’s, or “family” name, and the second, her mother’s.
  • “Matrifocal” is not used to describe a society, but rather, is used to describe a single family structure or the structure of a group of families within a larger society. While that group may be large, such as the current number of single mothers within many societies, mothers belonging to these matrilocal groups may or may not enjoy any greater political power within the society as a result of membership.
  • “Matrilocal” is used to describe new families being established near the bride’s family or origin, rather than the groom’s.

Political Power in Maternal Societies

Political power is one of the elements that differentiates matriarchal societies from other types of maternal societies. In a matriarchal society women are the primary decision-makers and make political policy. Great Britain, despite being a monarchy in which women have held considerable political power, is not considered a matriarchal society. Women have only ascended the throne in the absence of a male royal heir.

Some modern examples of matriarchal or maternal societies include the 40,000 member Mosuo society in Southwest China. Their language doesn’t even contain a word for “husband” or “father” because the women never marry. In addition to women controlling the finances, property is passed down through maternal lineage.

Some anthropologists have argued for the redefinition of matriarchal or maternal societies to include those that contain a mixture of matriarchal and matrilineal characteristics. One example of this is the Minangkabau society in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Their matrilineal society is based on maternal clans. While the religion is Islam and men govern political affairs, they do so according to the rules of “adat”, a local system of cultural traditions that had been in place for generations before the arrival of the Islamic religion.

As the world’s largest matrilineal society with over four million members living in West Sumatra as well as three million more, they continue to be influential in the region. One reason for their influence is a traditional custom in which boys, beginning as young as seven years of age, leave their homes to be culturally educated at a community center. As teens, they travel to other regions to continue their educations and gain life experience before returning to become members of a council of “uncles” which helps administer community resources.

Another example of a surviving matrilineal society in which women share religious and political power is that of the Bribri, an indigenous people of Costa Rica. In their society, only women are permitted to inherit land. Additionally, men are also not permitted to prepare the sacred cacao drink that is used in their religious rituals. However, power is shared, in that only men are permitted to perform certain rituals as well, such as that preparing the bodies of the dead for burial. Another example of power sharing is that only men from certain clans, which are matrilineal, can become shamans. Additionally, male shamans, who receive training in herbal medicine and healing for ten years, are not permitted to teach their own sons, but only the sons of their female relatives.

There have been maternal societies of some type on nearly every continent in the world at some time throughout history. Perhaps one day men and women will learn to share power to the extent that historians of the future will have as much difficulty locating evidence of patriarchal societies of the past as current historians have locating evidence of matriarchal ones.

maternal societies
Bribri girl holding a sugared cacao fruit
maternal kit

Maternal Kit: The Continuing Gift of Life

According to data gathered by the World Health Organization, approximately 830 women die each and every day due to completely preventable causes surrounding pregnancy and childbirth. Those days add up to over 300,000 women’s lives lost in a single year. 99% of those women live in developing countries. Political division and war are causing that number to skyrocket, and with so many refugees worldwide, accurate statistics that reflect just how great an increase are often impossible to obtain.

Doctors With out Borders is one organization that attempts to provide crucial medical services to refugee populations. Marjie Middleton, a midwife working with the organization on a reproductive health project for Syrian refugees, says that in addition to other factors such as inadequate nutrition and lack of access to health care

“…the combination of psychological and physical stress is very dangerous for their pregnancy.”

The psychological stress experienced by these women, many of whose husbands and other family members have been killed in war, is extreme. High blood pressure during pregnancy is among the most common reasons that women die in childbirth. Severe bleeding with no access to medical care is another.

Another danger to pregnant refugee women is the necessity of giving birth in unsterile conditions, which often results in deadly infections. This danger extends to their newborn infants as well. The World Health Organization reports that 4.5 million innocent children under the age of one year died in 2015 alone.

The Maternal Kit

Most mothers in developed countries prepare for the delivery of their children by creating a maternal kit. A maternal kit contains all the items expectant mothers will need to care for herself and her infant during the first days of life.

Many times, these items are received as gifts from family members and friends, and include such essentials as diapers and blankets. In countries in which hospital births are the norm, some of these items are also provided by the hospital. Hospitals also provide other things equally important for any maternal kit like sanitary conditions and medical assistance during delivery.

Many women in developing countries do not have access to regular prenatal care or the benefit of medical assistance during delivery for economic reasons. Those fleeing political oppression and war often lack a sanitary environment in which to give birth as well as even the most basic items necessary to care for her newborn infant after the delivery.

One charitable organization is dedicated to reducing the number of preventable deaths of mothers and their children caused by the lack of these basic necessities. To reduce the possibility of infection and severe bleeding during delivery, their maternal kit includes a plastic undersheet and an absorbent underpad, sterile gloves and a scalpel. For after the delivery, the maternal kit includes soap and a washcloth to clean the newborn infant, and a tunic, hat, and blanket for warmth. Each donation of $25 dollars can provide a maternal kit for an expectant mother in dire circumstances.

Many charitable organizations have come under fire in recent years due to allegations of corruption. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many people being reluctant to donate, suspecting that their money may be used to cover bureaucratic administrative expenses or fund lavish fundraising parties. Scandals such as the $500 million in missing donations to the Red Cross after the earthquake in Haiti have resulted in watchdog organizations that monitor charities. For example, the Charity Navigator is an organization dedicated to increasing the financial transparency of charitable organizations. To help people donate wisely, they make public the financial details of charitable organizations, including information regarding how much is spent on administrative salaries.

According to their data, IMA World Health, spends 95.7% of donations on programs such as the one that creates and distributes the potentially life-saving maternal kit for expectant mothers. CARE is another organization devoted to reproductive health and decreasing maternal and infant mortality around the world. What greater gift is there than to bring to an expectant mother than the gift of life itself?

maternal kit

family life on the street

Child Homelessness: A Modern Crisis

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”

–Mother Teresa

In 2005, the United Nations attempted a global survey to determine the number of homeless children in the world, the results of which estimated that 100 million people were homeless worldwide. Tobias Hecht‘s 1998 book,At Home in the Street: Street Children of Northeast Brazil study takes readers behind the headlines and statistics into the day to day experience of family life on the street. While this book is the result of a three year study from 1992-1995 in Brazil, the tragedy of child homelessness continues today, and it is not confined to undeveloped or “third world” countries.

In a 2014 article, Newsweek reported child homelessness in the U.S., one of the world’s wealthiest countries, had reached an all-time high. A shocking 2.5 million children, or one in 30, experienced homelessness in 2013, an 8% increase over 2012. According to an article in the Guardian, the number of homeless in London increased by 75% in 2014 and by 26% nationally over the last four years. In France, 2012 saw a 50% increase in homeless people, 30,000 of which were children. In Australia, 12% of the 105,000 people reported as homeless in 2009 were children under the age of 12.

Family Life On The Streets

In some countries, such as the U.S. , child homelessness is largely the result of systemic poverty and the lack of affordable housing. As of 2014, 1.5 million families in Spain were living in shelters. In other countries, it is the result of natural disasters. For example, in 2012, severe flooding in Cameroon left 25,000 people homeless. In Haiti, 2.3 million people were left homeless by an earthquake in 2010.

Child homelessness can also be the result of political oppression and war, exemplified by the current situation of thousands of Syrian refugees. Similarly, according to a recent article in the Telegraph, political conflict in the Ukraine has left an estimated 1 million people homeless.

Dangers and Effects of Living On The Street

The dangers of life on the street are many. In addition to physical danger, life without stable housing poses social and psychological dangers as well. An undercover reporter for the BBC exposed some of those dangers in a 2014 article about his brief experiences as a homeless person on the streets of Belfast. Families for whom homeless is prolonged are exposed to much more.

One of the biggest dangers of family life on the street is vulnerability to violent crime, including theft of the family’s few remaining possessions. Child trafficking for purposes of labor, sex, or the harvesting of organs is also a perpetual possibility among this most vulnerable population. 2012 statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported a 7% increase in child trafficking over three years. Of the estimated 4 million instances of human trafficking each year, 50% of the victims are children.

The physical dangers of family life on the street include a much higher potential for death from disease. The stress associated with homelessness weakens the immune system, and combined with the lack of access to proper hygiene, results in more illness. In many countries, the large number of homeless has begun to pose a national health concern, with communicable diseases like tuberculosis on the rise. Research shows that family life on the street also results in higher instances of mental health and substance abuse issues.

Some of the mental health issues caused by family life on the street include depressive disorders. 47% of homeless women in the U.S. were found to suffer from such disorders, which is twice the rate of the national average. The frequent moves associated with family life on the street also impairs the development of children’s social skills and often results in PTSD and attachment disorders. The lack of stability also disrupts education and negatively impacts academic achievement.

Alternative Solutions

Family life on the street has increased in nearly every country around the world in recent years. In response to this growing crisis, many governments are developing and implementing social programs or expanding existing ones. Some of them have already achieved a remarkable degree of success. For example, Scotland, as the result of homelessness prevention services, achieved a 34% reduction in the number of homeless people from 2010 to 2014. Their success is attributed to a housing option model and changes in legislation by local authorities.

According to a 2011 survey, Finland’s strategy reduced homelessness by 50% compared to rates in the 1980’s. The success of their program has been attributed to the conversion of homeless shelters to permanent housing. The program combines elements of existing programs in the U.S. and U.K. with preventative measures such as financial guidance, debt settlement, and psycho-social case management. Through the continued exchange of ideas, perhaps one day the horror of child homelessness can be eradicated.

family life on the street
Saudade de Nápoles (Missing Naples). Painting by Bertha Worms, 1895, Pinacoteca Sao Paulo, Google Art project
Inspirational Women

The view of one of the most inspirational women in combining motherhood, multiculturalism and ambition

“I usually make sure that my stories are from Africa or my own background so as to highlight the cultural background at the same time as telling the story.”

Inspirational Women

Some of the things that make inspirational women inspirational include overcoming hardships and succeeding despite nearly impossible odds. Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta OBE writes what she knows, and has described her stories as

“stories of the world…[where]… women face the universal problems of poverty and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical.”

Engaged to be married by age 11 and a child bride with a child of her own by the time she was 17, she left Nigeria and her native Igbo culture to follow her husband to England. There, after having four more children within five years, she left her husband, choosing the difficult life of a single mother. His response to her having written her first book was to burn it after refusing to read it. She began attending University when she was 22, earning a degree in sociology while working at a library and caring for her five young children. She was already in the league of inspirational women at that young age.

Upon graduating, she then worked for several years as a youth worker and sociologist before becoming a community worker. While those accomplishments alone would qualify her as an inspirational woman, she went on to become the author of more than 20 books, winning critical acclaim in the form of the Order of the British Empire in 2005. After having achieved success as an author, she became a lecturer and visiting professor at several universities in the United States, including Rutgers University. This allowed her to combine her writing with the oral story-telling tradition of her native Nigerian culture.

The Joys of Motherhood

One of her most popular books, “The Joys of Motherhood, was originally published in 1979. The 2nd edition of this work of literary fiction was published in 2013. The book explores the value multi-culture places on motherhood as compared to the value it places on women as individuals. A literary analysis of the book raises many issues surrounding motherhood, such as social status, economic security, familial obligations and competition between women.

Examining the many complex reasons that women choose to become mothers, several more layers of complexity are added by the vast differences in the political and geographic environments the protagonist must adapt to, as well as the power of foreign influence. Some of her other books with similar themes include Second-Class Citizen (1974), The Bride Price (1976), and The Slave Girl (1977). She’s also written several plays for the BBC.

Further Contributions

Her literary accomplishments are not the only things that qualify her as one of the world’s most inspirational women, though. In addition to having lectured at Yale University and the University of London, she has also lectured at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. She returns to Nigeria for three to six months each year, where she supports 31 extended family members. Because she wanted to help other black authors give voice to their experiences, she and her son Sylvester, a journalist, established the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company in 1982.

While she has been criticized by her some African male writers, who say that her work has been contaminated by European views, she remains dedicated to giving expression to aspects of both her native Nigerian and her adopted British cultures. Many feel that in order to achieve real understanding of the work of a writer within its cultural context, it’s necessary to first familiarize oneself with some cultural background. This can be especially helpful when reading works that deal with the challenges presented by cultural assimilation.

However, despite the differences in cultures, this author’s most important qualification as one of the world’s inspirational women is that her message of hope for women’s equality through cooperation rather than competition is universal.

Inspirational Women