Childbirth violence affects half of SA’s women

Half of South African women are reported to suffer some form of emotional or physical violence during childbirth. Picture: File

Half of South African women are reported to suffer some form of emotional or physical violence during childbirth. Picture: File

Published Feb 12, 2024


Half of South African women are reported to suffer some form of emotional or physical violence during childbirth.

This is according to #CountOurBirths, which reveals that a survey done by Embrace, a social movement for women, indicates that one in two women experience obstetric violence at South African health-care institutions.

According to this survey, which studied the birth experiences of 482 women who had given birth in South Africa, verbal abuse which includes bullying, humiliation and coercion as well as physical violence are some of the forms of abuse that women are subjected to during child bearing stages of their lives.

According to Julie Mentor of Embrace movement, women in public health institutions are twice as likely to experience obstetric violence.

Those who birthed in public health-care institutions were twice as likely to have experienced obstetric violence than women who had given birth in private health care.

“It’s interesting that even though the prevalence of obstetric violence in private health care was significantly lower than public, those who access private health care are not exempt from experiencing this form of gender-based violence. The double figure in public health care is a clear indicator of a systemic issue. Our public health care is both overburdened and under-resourced,” Mentor says.

This survey, which is a first for South Africa, was launched by the mothers’ movement as part of the previous 16 Days of Activism Against Violence campaign at the end of 2023.

Mentor said obstetric violence happens any time a person is mistreated or disrespected by nurses, doctors, midwives or any other medical staff during pregnancy, birth or postpartum.

She said there is no official data of how many women experience this violence. Other forms of obstetric violence include emotional abuse.

“Without this data, it is easy for those in power to minimise the traumatic experiences people go through while accessing obstetric care. It also allows them to ignore the scale of the problem. This birth survey is our first foray into getting moms counted.

“We started with mothers in the Embrace movement and asked our partner organisations to share the survey with women in their networks,” Mentor says.

According to Embrace, obstetric violence has serious and lifelong consequences for mothers and their children.

“Women and girls seeking reproductive health care are especially vulnerable, and violence committed in health-care settings should be considered a serious violation of human rights.

“The National Department of Health uses Pregnancy Awareness Week (6 –10 February) to strengthen pregnancy education and raise awareness of important issues that promote healthy pregnancy and safe motherhood.

“Obstetric violence threatens the provision of dignified, rights-based, high-quality, respectful maternal care. It can result in poor birth outcomes, infertility, disfigurement, disability, and even death. It also has the devastating effect of discouraging health-seeking behaviour in pregnant women and mothers,” Mentor says.

Due to fear and intimidation, Mentor says only a small percentage of women tend to report obstetric violence against them with only 13.7% women respondents having done so.

“Currently, there is no functional, streamlined and standardised complaints process for people who experience obstetric violence. So, not only is obstetric violence under-reported, but even in cases where women have tried to report it, there was a lack of accountability from health institutions, providers, provincial and national health departments,” Mentor says.