Plants used for Women’s Reproductive Health and Childcare in Benin and Gabon
By Alexandra Towns

Herbal medicines are used in women's reproductive health and childcare across West Africa. (Photographs by A.M. Towns, 2008)

Women’s knowledge of medicinal plants has largely been understudied in the field of ethnobotany. In addition to this gender bias, most ethnobotanical research has focused on the expert knowledge of traditional healers, overlooking the domestic knowledge of women. This is a particular concern for African women’s knowledge of reproductive health and childcare, since gynecological morbidity and infant mortality are among the most severe health problems in African countries. Much of the literature on women’s health and childcare practices provides little information on the plants or public health implications associated with their use. This study assesses women’s medicinal plant knowledge and plant use practices for reproductive health and childcare in Bénin, West Africa and Gabon, Central Africa through ethnobotanical questionnaires, botanical specimen collection, and herbal market surveys. It focuses on identifying (1) which types of vegetation women utilize for medicinal plants, (2) how closely women’s health perspectives, plant knowledge, and plant use practices reflect the statistical causes of maternal mortality (3) which infant illnesses mothers know to treat with medicinal plants and for which illnesses they seek biomedical care or traditional healers, and (4) what species, volume, and value of medicinal plant products are sold on herbal markets in Gabon. Outcomes from this study can (1) help healthcare professionals design culturally appropriate education programs, (2) contribute to the process of integrating traditional and modern health care in West Africa, and (3) support the conservation of these plants via local and regional environmental resource organizations.

This PhD dissertation, entitled Fertility and fontanels: women’s knowledge of medicinal plants for reproductive health and childcare in western Africa is freely available online by Leiden University A general abstract is available in English and French.


About Alexandra M. Towns

Alexandra discovered her interest for ethnobotany and traditional knowledge systems while working as an agricultural extension agent in rural Niger. From 2006-2008, she worked with a women’s sesame seed cooperative, supported various community gardening projects, and collaborated with farmers and local organizations to help improve household food security. She also spent many mornings collecting wild plants with village youth and afternoons preparing traditional dishes with female elders. Alexandra returned to Niger in 2009 to conduct ethnoecological research for her M.Sc. degree in International Agricultural Development from the University of California, Davis (USA). This study employed participatory methodologies to identify wild plant and fish species and investigate their role in the local food system. Ms. Towns also holds a B.A. degree in International Studies from Towson University (USA). In December 2010, Alexandra joined Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity-Naturalis and the National Herbarium of the Netherlands in Leiden University as a PhD researcher. She earned a PhD in September 2014 from Leiden University from her work on of the project “Plants of the Motherland: Linking West-African and Afro-Caribbean Ethnobotany.”

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