Study finds one-in-ten Australian women have experienced obstetric violence

Western Sydney University

A pioneering study by Western Sydney University researchers and co-designed and supported by leading consumer organisations, has revealed more than one-in-ten Australian women feel they have experienced some form of obstetric violence.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Violence against Women’, the study explored women’s experiences of obstetric violence in the past five years, utilising data from the national Australian Birth Experience Study (BESt), which is one of the largest studies into maternity experiences in the country.

In a sample of 8,804 women the study found 11.6 per cent of respondents identified ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ to the question, ‘Do you think you experienced obstetric violence?’

Research lead Dr Hazel Keedle from the University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery said despite growing international recognition, obstetric violence is largely unrecognised in Australia.

“Our study offers much-needed insight into women’s experiences of obstetric violence which is widely defined as dehumanised treatment or abuse by health professionals towards the body or reproductive process of women. This is not just about obstetricians but can be perpetrated by any health provider involved in the care of women,” said Dr Keedle.

“Obstetric violence results in a loss of autonomy and leaves women feeling confused and disempowered at one of the most vulnerable moments in their lives.

“It can also have a lasting impact on women’s support people and health care professionals.”

The study found women who experienced obstetric violence identified as feeling dehumanised, violated and powerless, with respondents sharing experiences of bullying, coercion, non-empathic care and assault as part of their birth experience.

Study co-author Professor Hannah Dahlen AM, who is also from the University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, said the issue of obstetric violence needs urgent attention in Australia.

“A multi-level approach is needed involving consumer organisations, health care professional organisations and individuals, academics and health authorities in order for obstetric violence to be recognised, reported, reduced and legislated against in Australia,” said Professor Dahlen.

“Experiences of obstetric violence are impacted by systemic issues such as health care professional education, staffing ratios and lack of access to continuity of care.

“Furthermore, it is recommended that health care professionals receive training to provide trauma-informed care to support women with a history of obstetric violence, previous trauma and/or a previous traumatic birth.”

The BESt study was a co-creation between academics, consumers and filmmakers behind the documentary ‘Birth Time’ which Professor Dahlen was also involved in.

Chair of Human Rights in Childbirth (HRiC) and lawyer Bashi Kumar Hazard who supported the project, said the HRiC commends the authors of this groundbreaking study for giving a voice to women.

“Mistreatment and dehumanisation in maternity health care is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights to dignity and respect, bodily autonomy and the highest attainable level of health. It diminishes her capacity to parent, places unnecessary burdens on our health system, irreparably damages a woman’s sense of safety and wellbeing,” said Ms Hazard.

“Obstetric violence is now recognised in international law as a subset of gender-based violence against women. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women reported that women are frequently denied their fundamental human right to informed consent when they come into contact with a maternity services facility.

“In a country such as Australia with well-appointed health systems and laws to protect women’s right to equality, the reported scale of mistreatment in childbirth is confronting and must be addressed.”

The survey is the largest birth experience survey conducted in Australia with more results to be published soon.

The BESt study is supported by 10 professional and consumer organisations:

  • Rhodanthe Lipsett Indigenous Midwifery Charitable Fund
  • Canberra Mothercraft Society
  • Human Rights in Childbirth
  • Lamaze Australia
  • Maternal Health Matters
  • Maternity Consumer Network
  • Maternity Choices Australia
  • Pregnancy Birth and Beyond Media
  • Birth Time documentary
  • Homebirth Australia

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