How widespread is this violence in Europe?
The experience of a non-negligible number of women around delivery is not all sunshine and roses. Quite the contrary.
In Italy, one out of five women declared to have suffered some form of obstetric violence during their first experience of childbirth (2017), in Spain, one out of three (2018), and in Belgium, one out of five underwent unnecessary harmful interventions (2021).
Routine episiotomy (a surgical cut made at the opening of the vagina during childbirth), not recommended by WHO unless in rare occasions if strictly medically necessary, is one of the most problematic such acts. In France, one out of five deliveries end up in episiotomies, with peaks of 45% in some hospitals, and in half of the cases without providing any explanations for the act (2018); in Italy, one in two women suffers from routinely performed episiotomy, which in one third of the cases is not even consented to; in Hungary, seven out of ten women experience it, and in over half of the cases without their consent (2018).
Another harmful practice happening in hospital settings after delivery, deeply rooted in gender inequality and patriarchal social structures, is the so-called ‘husband stitch’: stitching an episiotomy tighter, supposedly to increase the husband's pleasure during sex. In Belgium, for instance, this occurs to around 6% of women, with peaks up to 13% in some hospitals. Moreover, in Finland, one in three births are induced, with some hospitals reaching 45% of cases, which has become a common practice not linked to medical reasons and is almost always carried out without informed consent (2018). Finally, in Italy, four mothers out of ten affirm that they have been subjected to practices around delivery that undermined their personal dignity and integrity, and in Belgium one out of four reported to have suffered psychological violence during childbirth.
Multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination play a significant role in amplifying the impact of gynaecological and obstetric violence. For instance, many studies show that racism increases the chances that women of colour (WoC), with a migrant background or belonging to ethnic minorities, will experience such violence: in Belgium, one out of three WoC experienced some form of obstetric violence (compared to the general average of one in five); in Greece evidence shows that women living in refugee camps face high levels of disrespect in obstetric care, including over 60% being subjected to caesarian section and a total lack of informed consent to any medical act during labour (2016); in Ireland, traveller women testified to have experienced racism, neglect, delayed treatment and abuse in maternity facilities (2018). Even the socio-economic and educational status can influence the level of violence suffered (in Belgium, for instance, one in four women with a lower level of studies are survivors of obstetric violence, again a higher percentage than the average).