Alarming findings from a survey by Embrace expose the widespread mistreatment and abuse of women during childbirth in South Africa. Women who give birth in public institutions are twice as likely to experience abuse.

Staff Reporter

A recent survey conducted by Embrace, a social movement advocating for mothers’ rights, has revealed alarming statistics regarding obstetric violence within South African healthcare institutions. The study, titled #CountOurBirths, surveyed 482 women who had given birth in South Africa, shedding light on a prevalent yet overlooked issue in maternal healthcare.

Consequences to mother and child

Launched as part of Embrace’s 16 Days of Activism Against Violence campaign at the end of 2023, the survey marks the first of its kind in South Africa, aiming to explore the prevalence of obstetric violence. Obstetric violence encompasses various forms of mistreatment or disrespect by medical staff during pregnancy, childbirth, or postpartum, including verbal abuse, physical assault, coercion, and neglect.

Julie Mentor, leader of Embrace, emphasised the significance of collecting such data, stating, “Without this data, it is easy for those in power to minimise the traumatic experiences people go through while accessing obstetric care.”

Of the respondents, a staggering 53% reported experiencing some form of obstetric violence, with many indicating multiple instances. This mistreatment not only poses immediate risks to maternal health but also has long-term consequences for both mothers and their children.

“Obstetric violence has serious and lifelong consequences for mothers and their children. It should be considered a serious violation of human rights, especially in healthcare settings,” explained Mentor

Furthermore, the survey revealed a concerning disparity between public and private healthcare facilities, with women who birthed in public institutions being twice as likely to experience obstetric violence. Mentor highlighted systemic issues within public healthcare, stating, “Our public healthcare is both overburdened and under-resourced.”

A form of gender-based violence

Despite the high prevalence of obstetric violence, only 13.7% of respondents attempted to report their experiences, often facing unsatisfactory outcomes due to a lack of accountability from health institutions and providers.

Reflecting on her experience, an anonymous survey respondent shared, “Reporting was not easy… there was no compassion and the robotic responses almost made me give up.”

In 2022, obstetric violence was officially recognised as a form of gender-based violence at the Second Presidential Summit on Gender-based Violence and Femicide. However, Mentor stressed the need for political will to implement the proposed action plan.

Looking ahead, Embrace plans to utilise the survey results to advocate for nationally representative research and systemic reforms in South Africa’s healthcare sector. The movement envisions a healthcare system where all individuals seeking reproductive and obstetric care get treated with respect, compassion, and autonomy.

Internationally, countries like Australia, Italy, and Brazil have undertaken prevalence studies on obstetric violence, advocating for systemic vigilance and ongoing research. Embrace aims to leverage these findings to promote awareness and combat obstetric violence on a global scale.

“Our vision is for South Africa to be a country worthy of its mothers,” Mentor stated. “This includes a transformation of the healthcare system to prioritise respectful, rights-based maternal care for all individuals.” –

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