Everything You Need to Know About Obstetric Violence

Giving birth, while certainly exciting, can also be an incredibly daunting prospect, especially with obstetric violence a potential concern. But is it all that prevalent?

There’s plenty to organise if you’re preparing to give birth. For starters, there will be a seemingly never-ending list of practical arrangements which need to be sorted well ahead of time. What’s more, there are also countless physical and medical issues which are likely to play on the mind of any expecting mother.

One issue that often goes under the radar is the potential of experiencing obstetric violence. Such is the overall lack of awareness on the matter, many women who have given birth aren’t aware they have even experienced it, thus preventing them from being able to make a birth injury claim.

In this post, we take a closer at obstetric violence, explaining everything you might need to know about this issue. We’ll also detail what support is potentially available for anyone who has experienced it. Take a look…

birth injury claim obstetric violence

Photo credits: Christian Bowen via Unsplash

What is Obstetric Violence?

Obstetric violence is any time a person in labour, or who is going through the birthing process, experiences mistreatment or a disrespect of their rights. This might include physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, bullying, coercion, humiliation, or assault.

In pregnancy and childbirth, women have a specific set of human rights. The Human Rights in Childbirth organisation state that: “A person does not lose their; fundamental human rights when they become pregnant. Every human being, regardless of their pregnancy status, has the following rights:

  • Right to Informed Consent
  • Right to Refuse Medical Treatment
  • Right to Health
  • Right to Equal Treatment
  • Right to Privacy
  • Right to Life”

When these rights are ignored, or forcibly denied, this amounts to obstetric violence. Specific examples of this type of violence may include:

  • Vaginal examinations without consent
  • Forced caesarean surgery
  • Physical force or restraint during birth
  • Sexual comments or assault during examinations or procedures
  • Bullying into certain procedures or induction

What are the Potential Effects of Obstetric Violence?

Victims of obstetric violence are likely to suffer a wide number of effects, many of which are likely to have a serious detrimental impact on their quality of life, both in the short and long-term. The potential consequences of obstetric violence include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Immediate threat to life for both mother and baby during labour
  • Permanent damage to the baby
  • Permanent damage to the mother
  • Psychological trauma, such as PTSD
  • Issues with sex and intimacy
  • A lack of trust towards medical professionals

Speaking to Today’s Parent about her specific experience with obstetric violence, a woman recounted the feelings she experienced at the time and the issues she’s been forced to contend with ever since.

“I was not prepared for it” the woman, who was 22 at the time, said. “I understand that these exams are supposed to be uncomfortable, and they can be upsetting at times, but I wasn’t even lying on the bed before he tried to perform a cervix check.

“It started really hurting, like it was painful. I was in tears; I was crab-crawling off the hospital bed. I hit my head on the wall. I was begging him and screaming to stop. I had people holding me down so he could complete the check.

“Nobody was communicating to me what they were doing. It was: ‘This is what’s happening and you have to deal with it.’”

The woman also described the struggle she had with her relationship to sex and intimacy, saying: “Some nights I have to stop because I’m having flashbacks of my son’s delivery. It was hard then, and it’s still hard now.”

potential effects of obstetric violence

Photo credits: Aditya Romansa via Unsplash

How Often Does Obstetric Violence Occur?

Obstetric violence is alarmingly common, right around the world. While it’s certainly true that women in less developed countries, such as in Africa, are shown to be more likely to experience it, that doesn’t mean that it’s an isolated issue.

A 2020 study centred in Ghana, Guinea, Myanmar, and Nigeria found that more than 40 percent of observed women and 35 percent of surveyed women experienced mistreatment while in childbirth.

Over in the USA, the University of British Colombia surveyed 2,138 women in 2019. It showed that one in six participants reported experiencing mistreatment or harassment during the delivery of their babies.

UK statistics on the matter of obstetric violence are more difficult to come by. Academics have suggested that, in the UK, it takes the form of ‘paternalistic coercion’ as opposed to physical violence. This may explain why there are very few concrete statistics to refer back to.

A major issue that may skew the statistics with regards to the prevalence of obstetric violence is a general lack of awareness on the matter. Many women may not actually be aware that what they experienced during labour or childbirth constitutes as obstetric violence. This raises further questions about how common it really is in different societies.

What Is Being Done to Tackle the Issue of Obstetric Violence?

Obstetric violence has been recognised as a major global issue that needs to be addressed. The World Health Organisation previously published their research into the ‘prevention and elimination of disrespect and abuse during facility-based childbirth’. This identified five actions that need to be taken, namely:

  • Increasing support from national governments for effective research
  • Initiate programs design to improve maternal healthcare
  • Emphasise the rights of women to be dignified
  • Generate data related to respectful care practices
  • Involve all stakeholders, including women, to improve quality of care

There are a number of charities and organisations which have been set up to provide support to women who believe that they have been mistreated and exposed to obstetric violence during childbirth. These include Birthrights, whose mission statement is to ‘ensure women and birthing people receive the respect and dignity they deserve in pregnancy and childbirth’.

obstetric violence during childbirth

Photo credits: Janko Ferlic via Unsplash

Would You Like to Find Out More About Obstetric Violence?

In this post, we’ve covered the basics of obstetric violence and gone some ways to explaining why it’s such an important issue to be aware of. There’s no denying the fact that it can be an uncomfortable subject for some. However, only by talking openly about it can we help to improve awareness and make sure that women know their rights when it comes to giving birth.

If you have any questions regarding obstetric violence, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Please be advised that this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for advice from a trained medical professional. Be sure to consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if you’re seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. We are not liable for risks or issues associated with using or acting upon the information on this site.