Adrienne Strong

Medical anthropology, maternal mortality, hospital ethnography, and dignity in women's health care

I am a medical anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida with a joint Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, USA and the Universiteit van Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I study maternal mortality and women's health in Tanzania, currently in the Kigoma region on a birth companionship program and the notions of ideal comfort, care, and support for pregnant women in labor. Before my current position, I was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow with Columbia University's Mailman School of Health, in the Averting Maternal Death and Disability (AMDD) Program in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health and a Fellow at the Columbia Population Research Center.

My current book project, Documenting Death: Maternal Mortality and the Ethics of Care in Tanzania, under contract with University of California Press, focuses on the inner workings of a government regional referral hospital in Tanzania, examining how institutional structures related to hierarchy, bureaucracy, historical precedents, communication and other factors, may influence the capacity of the institution to provide effective maternal healthcare during times of obstetric crisis. My research focuses on biomedical healthcare providers and administrators, groups that are often overlooked in the context of medical anthropology in sub-Saharan Africa. I contextualize the hospital ethnography with interviews, participant observation, and focus group discussions in communities throughout the region, as well as through the use of primary archival sources from the colonial and post-independence eras. This is the first ethnography to examine the issue of maternal mortality in a low resource setting from this perspective and in the setting of a biomedical facility, complementing the existing work of anthropologists of reproduction who have worked at the community level.

I worked in the Rukwa Region for my PhD fieldwork, which I conducted from January 2014- August 2015. From September 2010 through July 2011, I conducted research on access to healthcare services during pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period in the Singida Region of Tanzania. My most recent project was about a birth companion pilot program in the Kigoma region of Tanzania from January through December 2018, which focused on the ways in which companions impact the social dynamics of health center maternity wards and the care provided in those settings. This project also included an 80-question cultural consensus survey and analysis around the cultural domain of care and support for pregnant women.

This is my personal website, which includes updates on my research, collaborations, conference presentations and papers, publications, teaching, and critical responses to current events related to women's health and reproduction.

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Mention on Anthrodendum for fieldwork blog

Conceptualizing Pregnancy Loss in the Tanzanian Context

“Our national White Ribbon Day was first proposed by HE Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the second President of the United Republic of Tanzania, in 2006. We remember annually the terrible loss of mothers and newborns, and we discuss with our political leaders how to join forces in preventing further deaths. On this day we wear the White Ribbon as a symbol of mourning, but also as a sign of hope that this tragedy will soon end. Two women from this very community have died recently while giving birth. One was a teacher. She died due to lack of safe blood transfusion. The other died because her uterus ruptured while she was giving birth at home; she was brought to this centre too late. 

The deaths of mothers and newborns requires action from all of us! Women, husbands, and communities must speak out if things are not right, and they must work hard to save money for the birth and to avoid delays. Health workers must deliver quality services. The government must ensure budgets, infrastructure and qualified health workers in place."- Rose Mlay, National Coordinator White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, Tanzania (WRATZ)


I have been in Tanzania since the middle of January this year, 2014, and started my research in the Rukwa region in the middle of February. Though my research is not primarily concerned with pregnancy loss, this is topic which I feels deserves more attention. The numbers are there for all to see and within Tanzania there are a number of organizations and campaigns addressing neonatal mortality. Most recently, on White Ribbon Day (March 15th), I was part of a health center opening in which a number of organizations and government leaders spoke about continuing high rates of maternal and neonatal mortality. However, one aspect of these losses that rarely seems to be discussed is the emotional impact on the mother and how many women might possibly struggle with grief or depression following a pregnancy loss. A common response to a stillbirth or neonatal death is that it was caused by "bad luck" or that the baby or pregnancy wasn't meant to be. This has most likely come to be the standard response because neonatal death is still relatively common. I have witnessed women being told not to cry following a stillbirth and others being told repeatedly by nurses that they, the women themselves, were responsible for their baby's death because surely they had taken local herbal medicines, even when they had not.

I once asked a physician whether or not he thought maybe a woman who had recently lost her baby and developed a vesico-vaginal fistula due to prolonged obstructed labor was perhaps developing symptoms of depression. He told me he thought she was just being lazy and was surely going to develop bedsores if she did not start exercising and get out of bed. I told him I thought perhaps she was sad about losing her baby, the second child she had lost in such a way, within just a short three year period. He told me that he thought most women who came to the hospital with obstructed labor were tired of the pain and just wanted to the ordeal to be over and the baby to be out, regardless of the outcome. When I spoke with this woman and others who had had similar experiences, they told me they often thought about and remembered the babies they had lost but they tried not to dwell on it. 

I recently became friends with another woman who experienced a stillbirth after her uterus ruptured and she had to have an emergency Cesarean section. Her aunt confided in me and told me the woman had not even been given the chance to see the baby's face and was inconsolable. She regularly asked her relatives to bring her baby son to her so she could see him and hold him. This was impossible because they had already had the funeral for the baby. The woman was nearing depression, uninterested in many activities, only wanting to stay home  during the day and often crying for long periods of time.

It is my feeling that support for dealing with these losses should commence in the hospital setting. Women should be helped to understand what might have happened to cause the death (if a cause is known) and how they might prevent such a loss in the future, if it was even anything within their control. Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Health care providers should be sensitive to the emotional needs of women and how each individual may express grief in a different way. Being allowed to see the baby and know the child's gender may be helpful for some women or it may not be for others, but the choice should be presented to the woman before the tiny bundle is taken away. 

Nearly every morning I walk into the maternity ward and am greeted by tiny bundles wrapped in bright khangas or kitenge fabric. A silent and grim reminder that there is still much work to be done in improving health care and still more work to be done in order to understand how women cope with their "bad luck" that resulted in their child's death. On the part of health care providers, it should be an on-going goal to reduce the number of "fresh" stillbirths, those in which the baby was alive until very shortly before birth. These types of stillbirths often might be prevented with closer or faster attention. While I acknowledge that it's easy to say we should be able to reduce these types of stillbirths but it's harder to do, I am tired of excuses from providers that these deaths are simply "bad luck."

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