This Spaniard, who had suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome after giving birth in the north of the country in 2012, had appealed to the UN because she had not been recognized as a victim by the Spanish courts. In July, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) concluded that she had been the victim of a series of acts without justification which constituted a case of obstetrical violence.
Since this decision, “more than 100 women have contacted me saying they have experienced the same thing”, says Nahia Alkorta, now 36 and mother of three, who lives in the locality of Zizurkil, in the Spanish Basque Country. (north). This violence, “we don’t talk about it because of the pain it causes, because of the shame and because there is this idea that it’s like that and that’s it”, continues- she.
In its report, CEDAW defines obstetrical violence as “a particular type of violence against women during childbirth in hospitals, which has been shown to be widespread, systematic in nature and rooted in health systems”. The Committee considered that Spain should pay Nahia Alkorta “appropriate damages”, without quantifying them, because of the physical and psychological damage she had suffered.
This decision comes as voices are multiplying in Europe to denounce this obstetric violence, which often goes unrecognized. In Europe, some national medical associations even reject the term. But for Nahia Alkorta, “women tell another story”.
A caesarean section without his consent
She suffered from nightmares, insomnia and traumatic memories after an ordeal that began when her water broke at 38 weeks pregnant. At the public hospital in San Sebastián (Basque Country) on which she depended, she was administered oxytocin to induce labor, even though she was having contractions and without any medical explanation being provided to her, she says. She also recalls that staff responses to her questions became increasingly aggressive.
“I felt totally at their mercy”
The day after her arrival at the hospital, the gynecologists decided to perform a caesarean section, without asking her agreement and despite being told by a midwife that the labor was progressing, she adds. With her arms tied, a protocol followed by some hospitals for caesareans, and her husband barred from the delivery room, she was shaking with fear. “I felt totally at their mercy,” she says.
There are no global data on this problem in Europe. But rights groups say that, on a regular basis, women are denied informed consent and are subjected to rude and degrading behavior by medical staff and, in some cases, unsafe practices.
In Serbia, a recent petition collected 70,000 signatures in five days asking that the state cover the cost sometimes required for the presence of a person accompanying a woman in the delivery room. The petition notably denounces insults, humiliations, shouting, as well as negligence and medical errors on the part of staff, claiming that “many mothers in Serbia would rather forget the day they gave birth”.
Rare legal proceedings
Some countries such as Spain and Italy have set up observatories of obstetrical violence, but legal proceedings are rare.
“We are approached by many mothers who have suffered a traumatic childbirth, but hardly anyone complains,” explains Nina Gelkova, from the Bulgarian organization Rodilnitza. “The state does not recognize the existence of such a problem,” she said.
In the case of Nahia Alkorta, the Spanish State replied to the UN Committee that “there is no a la carte delivery” and that the choice of intervention is “exclusively” incumbent on the doctor, defending the decisions of the courts of the country which ruled in favor of the hospital. “I was not looking for an ‘à la carte’ delivery at all, I was looking for humane treatment and I did not receive it”, defends Ms. Alkorta. “I am not against interventions that are justified […]but the limit must always be consent and respect,” she explains.