From November 25th (International End Violence Against Women Day) throughDecember 10th (International Human Rights Day), USAID joins the international community for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. During this time IMPACT will highlight USAID’s work to combat gender-based violence.
It is no accident that Aretha Franklin’s rendering of “Respect” rapidly became an anthem for marginalized and disenfranchised individuals and groups. The denial of human rights, particularly the most basic rights, such as respect, touches on a universal chord.
In recent years, global attention has been growing surrounding the horrifying issue of disrespect and abuse of women during childbirth.
Think about the treatment you, or your wife, sister or daughter, expect from your maternity care provider. He or she is responsible for helping you (or your partner) give birth safely. Can you imagine a doctor scolding you for not using family planning to control your fertility? Or being separated from your newborn because you don’t have enough money to pay the discharge bill? Or giving birth unclothed while visitors walk by?
In both developing and developed countries around the world, pregnant women experience disrespect that ranges from subtle denial of their autonomy to blatant abuse. Numerous studies (PDF) document physical abuse in childbirth, including slapping, restraining, suturing without pain medication, or forcibly pushing on a woman’s abdomen. For women carrying or at high risk for HIV, the fear of stigma and discrimination from providers is often compounded by stigma from partners and families, especially regarding HIV testing or positive status disclosure.
This lack of respectful care also deters many women from seeking hospital care; instead they choose to give birth at home without the care of a skilled health attendant. This increases the change of complications from childbirth, possibly causing death.
While some may blame healthcare providers, many of these providers are working under suboptimal conditions, with many being overworked, underpaid, and burdened with unmanageable caseloads. The lack of empowerment, dignity, and security for midwives and nurses is driven by deep-rooted attitudes derived from gender, class, caste, race and cultural norms towards women. These problems undermine the resilience of midwives and nurses and negatively impact their capacity to provide quality care.
What does respect for women giving birth mean? The Universal Rights of Childbearing Women Charter (PDF) clearly outlines what respect means; certainly it includes the physical safety of pregnant women, but it also includes the respect for women’s basic human rights, including respect for women’s choices, preferences, feelings, and autonomy. It also means addressing the conditions of healthcare providers.
To eliminate the humiliation and abuse of women in childbirth, USAID supports the White Ribbon Alliance to lead global and country level advocacy and the University Research Corporation TRAction Project (PDF) to carry out implementation research to assess the prevalence of disrespect and abuse and test approaches to decrease these behaviors. With USAID funding, the Jhpiego/MCHIP Project has developed a comprehensive Respectful Maternity Toolkit available throughout the world. Furthermore, USAID is partnering with the World Health Organization to review the evidence on the status and working conditions of midwives and address the disrespect and abuse of women in childbirth.
We see the need for increased awareness and support for civil society engagement and advocacy, and the need to work with all involved in the direction, management and provision of care to women giving birth. Global initiatives, such as the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health, are key opportunities to realize these basic human rights.
Until recently, this was a problem hidden behind a veil of silence. Now we hear the silence being broken across the globe, but it is just a start. Women’s voices need to be heard. And all of us need to respond to promote social justice and improve quality of care. Women’s lives depend on it.