Ethnic group stops banishing unmarried women to forest for childbirth

The Gie Trieng ethnic group in Quang Nam Province has called halt to a tradition that prohibited unmarried women from delivering at home.

Ho Thi Thuy, a Gie Trieng ethnic woman, mulls her child to sleep

Ho Thi Thuy, 24, of Phuoc Loc Commune in the province’s Phuoc Son District met a man in 2018 and the two planned to get married. But she became pregnant before the wedding could be held.

The Gie Trieng consider getting pregnant before marriage "very unlucky" and something that "brings bad things to the villagers."

As was their custom, Thuy was not allowed to deliver within the village. Women in such a situation had to go to the edge of the forest to have their baby. But Thuy went to the Phuoc Son District Health Center for the delivery.

She was discharged five days later, but her exile did not end there since she could not enter the village for 10 days.

Her husband was waiting at the village entrance to welcome them and take them to the edge of the forest. He had put up a small tent and a temporary bed made from wooden planks.

He helped out with the cooking and washed their clothes since no villager could get close to mother or child during the 10 days and until the family bought a pig weighing at least 10 kilograms and offered to the village as repentance.

"I knew it was not good for me or my child and sanitation was not like at home, but I did not dare flout the village's traditions," Thuy recalls.

If a woman brings her child back home too soon and some disaster strikes the village or someone dies, the blame would fall on the newborn. Then the offering to the village as penitence had to be a buffalo and wine costing over VND30 million ($1,300) to propitiate the gods.

"It was better for me to endure the forest than to be punished. We would not have been able to find the money to buy the buffalo."

Phuoc Loc is situated in the Ngoc Linh mountain range at an altitude of 1,000 meters above sea level. The village has some 400 households of whom more than 40 percent are considered poor. In the past they used to be scattered but now live in a residential area on a hill.

A view of Hamlet 2 in Phuoc Loc Commune in Quang Nam Province’s Phuoc Son District. The hamlet has more than 50 households. 

Luu Huyen Thoai, chairman of Phuoc Loc Commune, said over the last 10 years, local authorities and village elders have been trying to identify inappropriate customs and gradually eliminate them.

"In 2015 the commune authorities launched a campaign to eliminate the tradition of women having to give birth at the edge of the forest. But some cases have been reported in the last two years in Hamlet 2."

Ho Thi Nhung, 53, who had delivered five babies at the edge of the forest, said: "I had to prepare rice, clothes for the newborn and other things before every delivery and my husband would build a hut for me."

She returned home after one month each time.

"In my generation, every Gie Trieng woman had to obey the custom. Many children died during delivery because of poor medical care."

She went to explain the rationale for the custom.

Villagers consider a child born out of wedlock to be possessed by a ghost. Thus, when an unmarried mother gives birth at home, the spirit will haunt other villagers too.

"Whereas, if the delivery takes place in the forest, the ghost will not know the way to the village."

Ho Thi Nhung delivered five children in the forest. 

After local authorities launched several campaigns to raise awareness, in 2016 villagers agreed to abolish this custom, allowing Gie Trieng women to safely deliver at home without being punished by the village.

Now a village health worker, Nhung alerts local officials if she sees a woman head to the forest to give birth so that they could encourage her to go to the commune or district health center for the delivery. 

"We combine communication, advocacy and strong measures," Thoai added.

"If families do not comply, health workers and population officials will insist on sending the woman to the medical center to deliver and return home afterward.

"We also encourage women to stay at home for at least 10 days after giving birth and restrict travel."