This study investigates bereaved mothers' ethnoetiologies of avoidable infant deaths in Northeast Brazil. It critically examines the anthropological debate concerning "selective maternal negligence" as a relevant explanation for high infant mortality, based on an analysis of preexisting data. From 2003 to 2006, 316 ethnographic interviews collected by the author from 1979 to 1989 in six communities in Ceará State were retrieved. Forty-five narratives of fatal illness and death of 56 children < 5 years of age were identified for in-depth analysis. Despite their low income and schooling, grieving mothers constructed their own explanations for early death. The most common causes were infectious-contagious diseases (37.9%) and dehumanized care by the attending health professional (24.1%). No mother reported maternal carelessness, detachment, or negligence. If there is any "disregard" in the context of poverty, it is by the unjust economic, political, and social system and inhumane public health practice which violates their rights as citizens. To characterize a bereaved mother as "negligent", or worse, as accomplices in her child's death, is an act of interpretive violence, unfairly blaming and demoraling mother-caregivers in Northeast Brazil.
Infant Mortality; Maternal Behavior; Child Abuse