What is Obstetric Violence?

Obstetric violence describes abuses, mistreatments and human rights breaches suffered before, during and after childbirth. [1][2] This encompasses many violations, including (but not limited to):

  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Coercive, uninformed or unconsented medical procedures (including sterilisation and forced abortion [3])
  • Lack of confidentiality or privacy
  • Not providing medication for pain
  • Not admitting pregnant people to health facilities
  • Neglect during childbirth resulting in life-threatening, avoidable complications [4]
  • Physical restraint [5]
  • Obstetric racism. [6]
  • Forced sterilisation [17][18][19]

Obstetric violence is “widespread and systematic in nature” [3] and occurs across the world. This is exacerbated by the particular vulnerability of pregnant people during childbirth, and is compounded with other vulnerabilities such as youth, being unmarried, of low socio-economic status, an ethnic minority, a migrant, and/or living with HIV. [4]

In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls reported these root causes for obstetric violence:

  • Constraints within health systems such as poor funding, training and not meeting obligations to provide adequate facilities and staff – including gender and power imbalance of health professionals.
  • Discriminatory laws, practices and harmful stereotypes. These are even worse for vulnerable groups creating intersecting discriminations and cultural hierarchies in addition to gender-based discrimination. An example of a discriminatory law is the ability in some countries for a third party to give consent to a medical procedure on a pregnant person’s behalf.
  • Inherent unjust power dynamics where women are reliant on care providers, in particular those who abuse the use of “medical necessity” to justify actions. [3]

 Facts and figures

As of now, there is no standardised way of measuring obstetric violence [7], so statistics are often localised and based on small studies even though it is a global issue. [8] [9]

  • A comparison of studies from 34 countries showed similarities in obstetric violence across the world. For example, people in many different countries (high/middle/low income) reported experiencing “physical force”, “harsh or rude language”, “discrimination”, “refusal to provide pain relief “neglect, abandonment or long delays”, “poor communication”, and/or “lack of privacy” by healthcare providers. [10]
  • A 2019 World Health Organisation study from Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Myanmar reported that more than a third of women observed or surveyed experienced mistreatment. [11]
  • A 2019 study in the USA reported that 1 in 6 respondents reported at least one type of mistreatment, with these numbers increasing for women of colour. [12]
  • A 2022 study in Australia found that 11.6% of respondents experienced obstetric violence. [13]


  • If parents are too afraid to use maternal healthcare services, they may risk their own lives, or their children’s to avoid healthcare services in the future. [4]
  • The weakening of family ties and parental bonding. [14]
  • Increased occurrences of postpartum depression [15]
  • Increased risk of post-birth trauma and feelings of loss of dignity. [16]
  • Forced sterilisation of Indigenous women violates their reproductive rights and autonomy [17] [18] and may be considered a form of genocide. [19]

Footnotes and Further Reading

  1. “Rights”, Human Rights in Child Birth Organisation
  2. “Technical guidance on the application of a human rights based approach to the implementation of policies and programmes to reduce preventable maternal morbidity and mortality” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. UN General Assembly, 2012
  3. “A human rights-based approach to mistreatment and violence against women in reproductive health services with a focus on childbirth and obstetric violence”, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls, 2019. 
  4. “The prevention and elimination of disrespect and abuse during facility-based childbirth”, World Health Organisation. 
  5. “Submission on Human Rights Abuses of US Incarcerated Pregnant Women”, Reproductive Rights. 
  6. “Obstetric Violence: An Intersectional Refraction through Abolition Feminism”, van der Waal et al. Feminist Anthropology, 2022.
  7. “Report on a human-rights based approach to mistreatment and obstetric violence during childbirth”, UNOHCHR 
  8. “Why Obstetric Violence Needs to be Considered Within Frameworks of Gender-Based Violence”, KIT Royal Tropical Institute
  9. White Ribbon Alliance 
  10. “The Mistreatment of Women during Childbirth in Health Facilities Globally”, Bohren et al. PLOS Medicine, 2015.
  11. “How women are treated during facility-based childbirth in four countries” World Health Organisation 
  12. “The Giving Voice to Mothers study: inequity and mistreatment during pregnancy and childbirth in the United States”, Vedam, S., et al. Reproductive Health, 2019.
  13. “1 in 10 Women Report Disrespectful or Abuse Care in Childbirth”, The Conversation. 
  14. “Childbirth violence-based negative health consequences: a qualitative study in Iranian women.” Taghizadeh, Z., et al. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 2021. 
  15. “The association between disrespect and abuse of women during childbirth and postpartum depression” Mariangela Freitas Silveira, et al. Journal of Effective Disorders, 2019.
  16. Make Birth Better trauma guides and resources.
  17. “Sterilizing Indigenous Women without Consent is Torture, says UN Committee”,  Amnesty International
  18. “A 1970 Law Led to the Mass Sterilization of Native American Women. That History Still Matters”, Time Magazine.
  19. “Complicating Genocide: Missing Indigenous Women’s Stories”,  Oxford Research Encyclopaedias.

Additional Resources

  1. Birth Monopoly’s Obstetric Violence page 
  2. Make Mothers Matter campaigns 
  3. May 28 Obstetric Violence page 
  4. “The Iatrogenic Harm of Binary Gender in Perinatal Care” (A Case Study regarding Trans Men and Obstetric Violence)
  5. Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services (AIMS) Position Paper on Obstetric Violence 
  6. Durham University Obstetric Violence blog 
  7. Mother May I? film
  8. Summary of legal issues: Obstetric Violence in International Human Rights Law 

Video Credits and Further Viewing

  1. “Who Can We Trust: A Look At Obstetric Violence” McMaster University, Canada 
  2. “Croatian Women Share Stories of Obstetric Violence” BBC 
  3. Obstetric Violence Workshop/Lecture 

Picture Credits

  1. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko via Pexels.