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Violation and Rape - is there a difference?
Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Two diametrically opposed occurrences of "rape" crossed our desk this week.  The first was the terrible report of over 200 women in the DRC being systematically raped by Rwandan and Congolese rebels. Then we came across an article on (some) women's perceptions of the birth process, and how some feel violated during the birth experience.  The terminology that has been "bestowed" on this trauma is "birth rape".  That, of course, pricked up our ears.  Living in a country where rape is common, on a continent where this act of violence is used often as a means of control, of punishment and of reward; a mention of the word, with reference to something such as birth, raises an eyebrow and piques curiosity. 

So what is the discussion about?  To quote from the article, "Examples of birth rape include internal vaginal examinations without consent, breaking membranes without consent and inserting of forceps and other instruments into the vagina against the mother's wishes."

We do not deny that giving birth can be a traumatic experience.  We do not dispute that the birthing mother is in a very vulnerable state both physically and emotionally.  However, in a society where pregnant women have often established a relationship with their medical support team (gynaecologist, obstetrician, mid-wife, etc) over the nine months of pregnancy, have talked about the birth process, about what will happen, the experience, the implications of decisions surely trust has been established?  Surely a thinking woman, having established this relationship, will realise that the medical personnel will act in her and her child's best interests?  Should a doctor or mid-wife have to stop at every step of the birth process to explain what is happening, provide feedback on options available and ask for informed consent to proceed with the next step?  We are not sure how many women, in the throes of giving birth, would admit to being willing and able to provide informed consent.

There is no doubt that personnel assisting in a birth process can be insensitive to a mother - this is especially true in developing countries where the ratio of trained personnel to patients reaches unmanageable proportions.  But at the same time, many of these professionals are doing the best they can with the limited resources and facilities they have available. The solution here is increased training in sensitivity to patients, awareness of patients rights, upskilling in communication skills.  But to pseudo-criminalise the process by comparing it to a crime of violence and abuse of power?  We think not. 

Our concern is the following: To equate terrible inter-personal communication and its associated physical interaction with a crime that marginalises, demeans, debases and disgraces too many women too often in our society does nothing to raise the dignity and status of women.  Rather it simply sets aside those who are complaining as over privileged members of a society who are removed from the real life horrors of the world we live in.