Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, several states in Mexico and the state of Santa Catarina in Brazil: these are the countries and regions where a national law defines the idea of obstetric violence.

According to such laws, obstetric violence is a form of gender violence: a violence perpetrated against women, for the simple fact of being women. Article 15 of the Venezuelan framework law on women’s right to a life free from violence offered the first definition ever of obstetric violence:the appropriation of the body and reproductive processes of women by health personnel, which is expressed as dehumanized treatment, an abuse of medication, and to convert the natural processes into pathological ones, bringing with it loss of autonomy and the ability to decide freely about their bodies and sexuality, negatively impacting the quality of life of women”.

According to such view, acts of obstetric violence include, among other things, many of the procedures regularly implemented in many hospitals around the world; for example, forcing women to lie down, belly up, using stirrups, forbidding the presence of a companion, forbidding the mother-child union and/or breastfeeding giving no medical reasons and, generally speaking, modifying the natural process of a physiological delivery without providing medical indications and/or without the authorisation of the woman giving birth.

But what does “modifying a physiological process” mean? It means treating a healthy woman as if she were a patient and treating childbirth and pregnancy as if they were diseases. Namely, forgetting that pregnancy, delivery, puerperium and breastfeeding are complex and physiological processes, not simply medical conditions or events.

Modifying the normal processes means, for example, indicating as mandatory and fundamental medical exams that actually aren’t so. For example, a normal pregnancy requires two or three scans at the most, according to the national and international guidelines, but many more scans are usually performed. It means making the mother less confident, making her doubt her potential, making her increasingly reliant on the medical institution. Fear and insecurity can be instilled either very subtly or in a shockingly explicit way.

Then, there is childbirth itself. The moment when a woman and her partner should enjoy the birth of a new life is thwarted by medical requirements, which are seldom justified. Unnecessary interventions are now so widespread in so many hospitals and affects everyone, including the newly born, subjected to pointless practices in their first hours of life, when all they need is to be close to their mothers, and healthcare staff, midwives above all , who also suffer from obstetric violence (from an institutional and working standpoint), for they would want to help in other ways, but they can’t because of rigid protocols, unscientific habits and professional hierarchies.

However, that needn’t always be the case. That is why knowing and exercising your rights (because the woman in labour does have rights) can make obstetric violence – which affects so many women – more visible.