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An ethnographic study of women's experiences of breastfeeding in the Karo Highlands of Indonesia

Pinem, Milda Longgeita


Milda Longgeita Pinem


Rachel Alsop


This thesis is an ethnographic study of women's experiences of breastfeeding. Based in the Karo Highlands of Indonesia on the island of Sumatera and a marginalised location in terms of geography, ethnicity, religion, and state policy, the aim of this research is to understand the experiences of 16 Karo women who breastfeed and also the perspectives of other participants namely 5 grandmothers, 4 midwives, 2 priests, and 1 traditional baby sitter. The theoretical framework is feminist standpoint theory and throughout the research, I find that knowledge and experiences of breastfeeding mothers cannot be understood through a single entity such as gender but the experience is an intersection of various entities such as gender, ethnicity, religion, and geographical location. The methodology of the research is feminist ethnography. The research draws on a range of ethnographic methods including participant observation, formal interviews and informal conversations. The fieldwork was undertaken in 2015-2016 over a period of nine months through meeting with participants in their own homes and other places.

The data discussed in the thesis demonstrate how Karo women's experiences of breastfeeding is influenced by three main institutional structures: the state (Indonesia), religion (Christianity) and ethnic tradition (Karo traditional culture). I identify four key ways in which breastfeeding practices are shaped by this triad of influence. First, the Karo mothers have to negotiate conflicting attitudes towards reproductive practices. Such a situation exists because the institutions coexisting in Karoland, particularly the state and the Christian church, do not always hold the same views. Second, (and relatedly), the Karo women in their breastfeeding practices display agency in negotiating the practical and discursive dimension of breastfeeding. They demonstrate agency in relation to state and the churches. Third, Karo mothers have privilege within Karo society, specifically because they are breastfeeding. Fourth, and related to the continuing influence of Karo culture, the experiences of Karo mothers in breastfeeding were influenced by the central figure among Karo people, namely grandmothers.

This thesis has contributed to new knowledge about the experiences of marginal women in the practice of breastfeeding. Related to the findings in this thesis, there are recommendations for professional practice and further research. The findings suggest that midwives and policy makers need to understand the cultural context of women who are breastfeeding. Further research needs to be enriched with the experience of voiceless women in breastfeeding practices.


Pinem, M. L. (2018). An ethnographic study of women's experiences of breastfeeding in the Karo Highlands of Indonesia. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Nov 25, 2019
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Social sciences
Public URL
Additional Information School of Education and Social Sciences, The University of Hull
Award Date Sep 1, 2018


Thesis (8.9 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2018 Pinem, Milda Longgeita. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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