Back in November 2020 I was most certainly experiencing some pretty cloudy skies, but, as it turns out, sunlight really IS the best disinfectant. By dragging my story - even the parts of it that made me upset or uncomfortable - out of the shadows, the whole enormity of the situation and the distress is caused me has completely lost its power. I’ve had the biggest wave of support, in literally thousands of messages across all platforms. Thanks to all of you who have sent them, I’m still in the process of replying to as many as possible. Each and every one of them has meant a great deal to me, and at some point I’d like to collate and archive them in some way. More on that in a few weeks perhaps.
In the meantime another epic silver lining has been that a lot of people have been asking ‘what is obstetric violence?’. So I thought I would give you a nice quick outline of what it is, and reiterate again why it is ‘violence against women’.
Obstetric violence is any disrespectful or abusive treatment that happens to a woman in the maternity setting. The term can be a little misleading, because it doesn’t have to be perpetrated by an obstetrician, and it doesn’t have to be physical violence. However, as one survivor of obstetric violence, Mila Oshin, put it to me when I was writing Give Birth like a Feminist, those who have experienced it are best qualified to name it: ‘The term obstetric violence is one that does not necessarily reflect the intentions of others, but I feel entitled to use it in reference to my experience’, she said.
Thanks to Latin American birth activists, Venezuela was the first country to define obstetric violence as one of 19 punishable forms of violence against women. They define it in this way:
‘The appropriation of a woman’s body and reproductive processes by health personnel, in the form of dehumanizing treatment, abusive medicalization and pathologisation of natural processes, involving a woman’s loss of autonomy and of the capacity to freely make her own decisions about her body and sexuality, which has negative consequences for a woman’s quality of life.’
The following list, from Venezuelan law, of what constitutes obstetric violence, is also helpful. They state that it encompasses:
untimely and ineffective attention to obstetric emergencies
forcing the woman to give birth in a supine position when the necessary means to perform a vertical delivery are available
impeding early attachment of the child with his/her mother without a medical cause
altering the natural process of low-risk labour and birth by using augmentation techniques
performing caesarean sections when natural childbirth is possible, without obtaining the voluntary, expressed, and informed consent of the woman
Why is it violence against women?
I believe that the mistreatment of women in childbirth is part of a long history of discrimination against women on the basis of their biological sex. We know that ‘violence against women’ is something unique, that needs its own label in order that we can best tackle it and one day, end it. It is not ‘violence against people’. It’s sex specific violence, that happens to women, because they are women. And by women, I mean adult female people, people with female biology.
It has been wrongly stated that saying that ‘obstetric violence is violence against women’ asserts that obstetric violence cannot happen to trans or non binary people. Of course this is not the case. It can happen to anyone in a maternity setting. But if it’s truly obstetric violence (rather than hate or discrimination on the basis of a person’s gender reassignment), it’s happening because they are having a baby. It’s happening to them because they are biologically female. It’s violence against women.
If you want to read more about obstetric violence, here are a few links:
and of course my book Give Birth like a Feminist, which is suitable for anyone interested in women’s rights in birth (not just preggos!), and is still 99p on kindle til the end of the month! Toodle pip.