It is well documented that gender-based violence cuts across all social, economic, religious and class boundaries. Violence against women and girls is described by the UNFPA as “one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world”, affecting an estimated one in three women.
Gender-based violence expresses itself in a host of harmful behaviours directed at women and girls, including sexual assault, female genital mutilation, rape (including marital rape), forced prostitution, early marriage, trafficking and any other acts of physical or psychological violence. It is thought that violence against a women from her male spouse or partner (so-called intimate partner violence) is the most pervasive form of violence. Gender-based violence, is also rife in conflict zones, affecting women and girls “by virtue of nothing but their gender.” Sadly, this violation of women and girls does not stop even when a woman is pregnant.
The consequences of gender-based violence on maternal health are devastating:
- Pregnant women who are subject to gender-based violence are more likely to delay seeking antenatal care.
- Terminations of pregnancy are doubled among women who become pregnant as a result of rape, many of which are conducted in a highly unsafe manner leading to severe complications or event death.
- There are strong links between gender-based violence and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) that can negatively impact on not only the mother’s health, but also the health and survival of her newborn.
- Although the exact reasons why are not always clear, it is thought that violence during pregnancy can lead to increased risk of miscarriage, premature labour and stillbirth.
- Pregnant women and new mothers who have been subject to gender-based violence are at greater risk of depression, which in turn can lead to increased risk of suicide, as well as affecting positive bonding with her newborn.
- It is thought that more than one third of maternal deaths globally occur in crisis settings where health facilitates and basic infrastructures have been destroyed.
- Even health facilities themselves can be a source of violence against pregnant women, and are therefore may not be attended by women.
This list is by no means exhaustive – gender-based violence has a domino effect on maternal health.
It would be easy to feel helpless but what can be done? The root causes of gender-based violence in pregnancy are complex and not easily solved. There is little doubt that working with boys and men is critical and central to tackling gender-based violence. But in addition, strengthening women’s resilience through education and community empowerment plays an important role. The provision of respectful maternity services, with an educated and empathic workforce, asking the right questions and reassuring women that violence in pregnancy is never acceptable, can encourage women to seek care and support. In one study, a client said, “Compassion is going to open up the door. And when we feel safe and are able to trust, that makes a lot of difference.”
This post is part of Girls’ Globe’s #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Post series. Learn more about the #16Days campaign here, and join the discussion on social media with #16Days.
Written by Esther Sharma, midwife and trustee at Women and Children First (UK)