Recovering the Traditional Knowledge of Women


The non-academic knowledge of midwives and faith healers is gaining support and respect from initiatives connected to humanist values and regional cultural identity

by Giovana Camargo cover Sara Falli translated by Pronoia Tradutória

Boldo tea for gastritis, oregano tea for cramps, lemon and ginger for flu, calamine lotion for burns. Traditional faith healers and midwives hold valuable knowledge behind these simple recipes. These women, sensitive to nature and their surroundings, carry with them a native wisdom. Their knowledge makes them leaders in their communities and agents of social change. Many of these traditional practices are at risk of being lost, passed down from one generation to the next through word of mouth and experience alone.

After years of resistance, traditional knowledge is starting to gain recognition and is being recovered, with new life, by the awakening of a new consciousness that goes hand in hand with a decline in consumption. Natural wisdom is motivating projects and brands that want us to reappropriate our bodies, accepting organic processes and reconnecting with the sacred.

Natural Care and Healing

Healers and spiritualists are great connoisseurs of the roots, herbs, and plants that can be found in the environment they live in. Their work involves identifying plants for medical use and preparing home remedies such as teas, medicines, ointments, and oils for various illnesses. Due to the uniqueness of their surrounding ecosystem, they are also fundamental to maintaining and preserving biomes and native species, expanding the catalog of medicinal plants, and promoting research into the phytotherapeutic potential of regional plants.

The results of this work have been demonstrated by projects such as Mulheres da Terra (“Women of the Earth”), “a journey to recover the ancestral knowledge of women around the world” that documents stories and photographs of women who play important roles in their communities. Articulação Pacari (“Articulation Pacari”) is another important national movement that is trying to protect medicinal plants in the Cerrado region. The group, formed mostly by women, makes sustainable use of biodiversity in the production and sale of therapeutic medicines.

Dona Maria d’Ajuda, midwife and faith healer. Photo: Isadora Carneiro.

This behavioral movement is currently gaining strength among younger women who are looking to live a simpler, less medicalized life. In the pursuit of a simpler life, these women are consuming fewer products that contain harmful substances and prioritizing organic, artisanal, homemade care products. Many are revisiting old family recipes to independently and consciously produce their own cosmetics. Online content platforms such as Matricaria are driving the trend and spreading the word about feminine ecology.

There are cosmetic brands that also consider a humanist connection with natural materials among their core values. Small businesses run by women often thrive when driven by the purpose of introducing the benefits of organic energy into the intimacy of everyday life. Sometimes, larger brands endorse and appreciate the natural too, as is the case with Weleda, which has been producing medicines and cosmetics based on anthroposophic principles since 1921.

“I am aware of the difficulty of producing 100% natural products on an industrial scale and at affordable prices, but this initiative aims to inject a little bit of the good that nature can really offer us into our daily lives.” — Sachimi dos Santos, SACHI natural cosmetics

SACHI natural cosmetics
Sacerdotisa: natural therapeutic alchemies and conscious cosmetics
Fefa Pimenta’s goal is to “offer products to people who are looking for a connection with nature, health, and true self-care”
Jardineira de Oxalá encourages people to take care of themselves “as we used to,” by producing cosmetics made with “natural ingredients and ancestral wisdom.”

Humanization of Childbirth

A feminine movement is seeking to naturalize the organic practice of vaginal childbirth and the understanding that women’s bodies are designed to give birth. So-called humanized childbirth advocates approaching pregnancy and birth with fewer medical interventions, without the use of synthetic hormones and medication. This idea is helping to recover one of the world’s oldest professions: the midwife. Women who monitor, look after, and advise pregnant women, preparing the birthing environment, natural medicines, and assisting in labor using particular maneuvers and techniques when needed.

“To change the world, we must first change the way babies are being born.” — Michel Odent, obstetrician and advocate of humanized childbirth

It is important to note that this movement is relatively new in Brazil, and particularly important. Natural births are extremely common around the world, but not in Brazil, which has one of the highest rates of cesarean sections in the world. The reality of obstetric violence is changing, but it is still alarming.

In this context, humanized childbirth is also part of women’s increasing awareness. Women are starting to rethink the rules that have been imposed on them and taken as natural for so long, such as the disposable sanitary pads and the contraceptive pill.

Photo: Isadora Carneiro

One option for women electing for humanized childbirth and fewer medical interventions is a birthing center; an environment designed to accommodate mothers, fathers, and their newborn babies. Casa Angela in São Paulo, for example, attends to about twenty births per month, and includes prenatal meetings and support groups for pregnant women, as well as breastfeeding support. Cais do Parto in Olinda also offers technical training and qualifications for midwives and doulas.

Parto pelo mundo (“Giving Birth Around the World”) began as a documentary series on channel GNT, and later became a feature-length film, O Renascimento do Parto (“The Rebirth of Childbirth”).

The Wild Born Project is a photographic and scientific project exploring the sociocultural and ecological aspects that permeate natural childbirth traditions and practices in communities around the world.

Bela Gil has been an important figure in encouraging the debate on humanized childbirth in Brazil, sharing informative videos, including the home birth of her own child.

Revaluation of Spirituality

Faith healing is another traditional craft practiced by women. The field is connected to spirituality and faith, and is manifested through different religious symbols, practices, and heritages across Brazil. Most healers are not paid for their work, but they do not complain, for fear that their wisdom would not be passed on.

Many people are currently concerned with ensuring this profession continues and with preserving its intangible cultural heritage and bond with the divine.
Dona Francisquinha, shaman, midwife, and healer. Photo: Isadora Carneiro

Faith healers in the city of Rebouças, Paraná, have been mapped and registered — they even have an official ID card. This legitimacy provides practitioners with more security. Previously reported to the police and treated with prejudice, today they are recognized for helping improve public well-being and health in their region.

Lia Marchi’s film, Benzedeiras – ofício tradicional (“Faith Healers – A Traditional Craft”) shows the life and achievements of some of these healers.

Some practices closely linked to shamanistic rituals and used by indigenous communities are making waves as a new concept of medicine. The notion of health extends beyond physical matter and the body, connecting with spirituality. Ritual practices that use teas prepared with “powerful herbs” such as ayahuasca and jurema, or the use of snuff, kambô (also known as the frog vaccine), and sananga give access to a unique understanding and become instruments of healing. Scientists have studied the undeniable physiological changes and behavioral patterns of individuals who adhere to certain practices. Ayahuasca, for example, has a proven power to stimulate the proliferation of neurons.

It is essential, however, to understand that ritual practices must be treated with respect, not consumed as a product of fashion. Spirituality demands a connection with the truth, and only then can we experience its benefits.

Despite knowing the names of every tree in their surrounding environment, many women who hold this traditional knowledge have no formal education. As a result, their knowledge has come to be seen as less legitimate. The essentially predatory colonization of Brazil weakened its traditional knowledge, glorifying the academic and scientific, while disparaging the subtler fields: the ritualistic, spiritual, and empirical. Institutions were created to validate and formulate what once belonged to the people and to collective intelligence – and thus, we moved away from our own cultural identity.

Communities motivated and healed by traditional knowledge display remarkable resistance: they question existing models and are committed to the search for equal rights and more humanist values.

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