The Embrace Movement – a social movement of mothers – have teamed up with Makhulu, an impact and film agency, to expose the extent of obstetric violence in the country. Obstetric violence often goes unnoticed and under-reported despite its pervasiveness.
This is due to its lack of recognition in Mzansi’s judicial system as a form of gender-based violence, says Embrace Movement leader, Julie Mentor.
Mentor explains that obstetric violence comprises a host of human rights violations perpetrated by the very people who are meant to protect, and provide support to women and birthing people during pregnancy, labour, childbirth and in the postpartum period.
A series hoping to bring change
The five-part documentary series dubbed Push Comes to Shove, will first be screened in Johannesburg on 30 November.
It aims to show that obstetric violence is a common yet preventable barrier to accessing quality and dignified healthcare, says Mentor. The series will reveal how trauma is inflicted on mothers in various ways – subtly and overtly – when they are pregnant, labouring or newly postpartum in both public and private healthcare sectors.
“Our organisation has worked hard to elevate the stories of women who have experienced obstetric violence. The logical next step was to co-create this series of short films with visual story-telling agency Makhulu and mothers who have been wanting to share their stories,” says Mentor.
“By launching the documentary series during the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence and femicide (GBVf), we are making the link clear that obstetric violence is in fact gender-based violence and needs urgent attention,” she explains.
‘Silence is violence’
The abuse of women during pregnancy and childbirth is not new, explains gender justice expert, researcher and activist Dr Jess Rucell. She describes obstetric violence as an intersection of sexual reproductive health rights, GBV and femicide (GBVf).
According to Rucell, obstetric violence in South Africa is rooted in systems that have historically denied the agency and autonomy of women, especially black women, in the context of enslavement, colonialism and apartheid. But the root causes are often overshadowed or overlooked, compounded by a lack of accountability in the healthcare system.
“It is a structural problem that is found globally in both developed and less developed countries. While it is important to hold individual actors accountable, it’s also necessary to find structural solutions,” she says.
A serious violation of human rights
Currently, obstetric violence is not recognised in the law, and that needs to change asserts Basetsana Koitsioe, a gender justice attorney at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS).
“Any violence experienced by women while accessing reproductive healthcare should be considered a serious violation of human rights,” Koitsioe says.
“It is crucial for women to tell their own stories and expose a form of gender-based violence that is not only widespread in our healthcare system, but also, most often, normalised or even ignored.”
Koitsioe joins Rucell as an expert voice in the docuseries, providing additional insight into obstetric violence and its legal parameters. She describes this as “an essential tool” to draw attention to the issue.
Sharing four women’s lived experiences
“If it was switched around, and men were delivering babies, would this still happen? I doubt it,” notes Prof. Lynette Denny, weighing in as former department head of the University of Cape Town’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Also adding her voice to the series, Denny notes that the only way to stop obstetric violence is to expose it.
The first episode of Push Comes to Shove provides an overview of obstetric violence in South Africa, with insight from researchers and healthcare workers who are committed to eradicating these practices on the frontlines of our hospitals and clinics.
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