Sexual and reproductive health

Mistreatment of women during childbirth a sad reality worldwide

02 February 2017: Women worldwide face diverse forms of mistreatment during childbirth by health-care providers. Recent evidence, which has been generated through the HRP Alliance research capacity strengthening programme, suggests that this unacceptable mistreatment can include physical and verbal abuse, violations of privacy, stigma and discrimination, and neglect and abandonment.

Health-care providers should ensure high quality, evidence-based and respectful care to women and their infants during childbirth and labour, but evidence shows that some providers have misconceptions about what constitutes acceptable behaviour.

A pregnant woman is examined by a midwife at a health post, Guinea.
A pregnant woman is examined by a midwife in Guinea.
UNICEF/Holt

Evidence of mistreatment

In the first known qualitative studies of their kind to be conducted in Guinea, it became clear that the mistreatment of women during childbirth in the country is a reality.

This research, which was led by scientists from the Cellule de recherche en santé de la reproduction en Guinée (CERREGUI), University National Hospital-Donka and WHO, was published in the journal BMC Reproductive Health.

The authors of one article note that this can include, ‘physical abuse such as slapping, pinching and excessive fundal pressure. Women also experience verbal abuse, neglect and abandonment during childbirth’.

Attitudes and acceptability

The research highlighted how some health-care providers considered different forms of abuse as acceptable. What is more, some women also accepted some forms of mistreatment.

In one article, the authors note, ‘Midwives and doctors may use abusive techniques to get women to cooperate, and paradoxically some women accept such mistreatment if they believe it will benefit their health or their baby’s health.’

A global problem

Mistreatment of women during childbirth occurs in countries across the world and puts the lives and well-being of women at risk. It also constitutes a violation of the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to dignified, respectful healthcare throughout pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the right to be free from violence and discrimination.

Research capacity strengthening

These research articles were co-authored by researchers from Guinea and staff working at the WHO Department of Reproductive Health and Research including HRP.

CERREGUI, the research institution based in Guinea, received support from the HRP Alliance research capacity strengthening programme for this research.

The articles form part of a multi-country study on mistreatment of women during childbirth in four countries: Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria and Myanmar. They come from the first qualitative stage of the study, which aims to better understand contributing factors to mistreatment during childbirth, and to pinpoint areas for action.

Barrier to progress

High quality and respectful healthcare is crucial to prevent maternal death and to make progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals, as well as the aims of the aligned Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health. The mistreatment of women during childbirth is therefore a significant barrier to reducing maternal mortality in countries worldwide.