Obstetric Violence
Of all topics concerning women, obstetric violence is one of the most taboo. Obstetric violence involves patients experiencing abuse, neglect or disrespect at the hands of their OB-GYN, particularly during childbirth. A study by the WHO which followed and interviewed over 2000 women pre- and post-childbirth in Ghana, Nigeria and Guinea concluded that 42% of respondents experienced discrimination or verbal or physical abuse. This abuse includes slapping, mocking, forced episiotomies and unnecessary medication or cesarean sections. Here are six things to know about obstetric violence.

6 Things to Know About Obstetric Violence

  1. Power disparities between doctors and patients discourage women from objecting to or speaking out against abusive practices. According to the Latin American Journal of Nursing, the unequal power relationships with patients leads to “the loss of the woman’s autonomy and her right to decide on matters related to her body.” As a result, women are prone to experiencing different forms of violence during labor and delivery care.
  2. Obstetric violence is not limited to pregnant women. It can occur during any OB-GYN visits and includes invasive practices, denial of pain, refusal of treatment, verbal humiliation and non-consensual touching. According to another study by the WHO, 49.9% of women in Ghana reported undergoing vaginal examinations performed without their permission.
  3. Specific groups of women are more likely to be mistreated than others. Ethnic minority, low income, unmarried, adolescent and migrant women are more likely to be mistreated by an OB-GYN. According to the WHO, “Younger, unmarried women were more likely to have non-consented vaginal examinations.” The midwives and doctors often justified abusive treatment as punishment for women they found “uncooperative.”
  4. Obstetric violence discourages women from consulting maternal health services or OB-GYNs. This could cause medical complications to go unnoticed and untreated, potentially leading to maternal or child mortality. Women who experience abusive treatment from medical professionals may also suffer serious complications, however. The abuse often leads to permanent emotional, mental and physical damage. It also presents a health hazard at the community level, as the prevalence of obstetric violence encourages the idea that such treatment is normal.
  5. Countries have recently started defining obstetric violence. In 2006, Venezuela defined it as the “appropriation of the female body and reproductive processes by health professionals.” Similarly, Argentina’s definition is “cruel, dishonorable, inhuman, humiliating threatening treatment by health professionals, causing physical, psychological and emotional harm to assisted women.” Defining mistreatment by health professionals in legislation is the first step to combatting it on a legal level.
  6. NGOs such as Make Mothers Matter (MMM) are fighting obstetric violence. MMM “works in synergy with grassroots organizations around the globe” to empower women. It recognizes the potential women have as leaders for change. The NGO places emphasis on the importance of proper treatment of women and mothers at the hands of their OB-GYN being crucial for child wellbeing and development. In addition, MMM exposes the dangers of obstetric violence and spreads awareness to bodies of governments capable of creating real change.

Obstetric violence violates fundamental women’s rights. Fighting it will involve recognizing the role gender inequality has in creating hierarchical dynamics between doctor and patient. Efforts by governments and NGOs to end mistreatment by OB-GYNs will improve the physical and mental welfare of women and children around the world.

Mathilde Venet
Photo: Flickr