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From Green to Red Tide: Latin America Is Leading the Way in the Fight Against Obstetric Violence


Since the early 2000s, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Costa Rica have all passed legislation laying out the rights of people at the time of labor and delivery.

Thousands of women march for the day ”NI UNA MENOS” (Not One [Woman] Less) at the Congress of the Argentine Nation in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on June 3, 2024. (Marina Espeche / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Organizations across the world last month celebrated the “Week of Dignity in Childbirth,” originally called for in 2004 by a French NGO to raise awareness of mistreatment of women during labor and birth. Only recently recognized as a prominent issue, mistreatment and abuse in reproductive healthcare was acknowledged as a global problem by the World Health Organization in 2014.

The issue is widely prevalent worldwide, even in the United States where 20 percent of mothers reported mistreatment during pregnancy and delivery, according to 2023 CDC report. Rates are higher among Black (30 percent) and Hispanic (29 percent) women, as well as those with state or federal health insurance (26 percent).

While such mistreatment is gaining traction worldwide, the region at the vanguard of efforts against such abuse is Latin America. 

Abuse in Reproductive Care as Gender-Based Violence

Latin America’s response to this type of abuse has been naming it as a type of gender-based violence.

In the early 2000s, Latin American feminists coined the term “obstetric violence” (OV) to refer to acts of abuse in the context of pregnancy, labor and birth, including physical and psychological violence, abusive medicalization and pathologization of natural processes that involve the loss of autonomy over our bodies and sexuality. 

Coining the concept of OV was a first step towards demanding legislation that recognizes and protects people who suffer from gender violence during obstetric care. Since the early 2000s, governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Costa Rica have all passed legislation using the language of OV, laying out the rights of people at the time of labor and delivery. Some of these protections include the right to be informed about every medical intervention, the right to have someone with you and the right to choose the type of labor and birth. 

One of the leaders of this movement, Argentina, has legislation that acknowledges the rights of pregnant people at birth since 2004 (Law 25,929). These protections were later reinforced in 2009 when, following Venezuela, it became the second country in the world to define obstetric violence as a kind of gender based violence in Law 26,485.

Governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Costa Rica have all passed legislation laying out the rights of people at the time of labor and delivery.

But despite the legal advancements, obstetric violence persists.

Argentina’s Campaign Against Obstetric and Neonatal Violence

In December 2022, the National Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity published a report stating that OV is one of the most naturalized types of gender-based violence. As a response to the lack of sufficient enforcement, that same year, Argentine activists launched the Campaign Against Obstetric and Neonatal Violence to bring visibility to the issue and demand the enforcement of the rights laid out in the law.

The May 17 demonstration in Argentina raising awareness of mistreatment and abuse in reproductive health care. (Celeste Mariel Jerez)

Inspired by the fight for the legalization of abortion and their green scarfs, the campaign designed their own scarf in a different color: red, as a metaphor for blood, the womb and obstetric emergencies. Through their motto, “My birth, my decision,” activists purposefully connected the struggle against obstetric violence to that of legalized abortion given that both are core feminist principles. 

Argentine activists are continuously expanding the scope of their advocacy, both through street protest as well as new framing devices and concepts. Earlier this month, activists took to the streets within the context of the “Global week of dignity in childbirth” and organized their second annual national demonstration with events in the capital city of Buenos Aires and several other localities throughout the country.

(Celeste Mariel Jerez)

The call this year was to commemorate the 20 years of the first legislation that laid out the rights of pregnant people during birth (law 25,929) highlighting the pervasive violation of those rights: “20 years after the law of Dignity in Childbirth, obstetric violence continues its cruel hold over our bodies.”

At the same time, they also pushed the concept of obstetric violence by referring to gender violence during all interactions with the health care system during people’s reproductive lives. The notion of “gyneco-obstetric violence” refers to the acts of violence committed not only during labor and childbirth, but also during abortions, and regular health procedures such as PAP smears. 

Through their motto ‘My birth, my decision,’ activists purposefully connected the struggle against obstetric violence to that of legalized abortion given that both are core feminist principles. 

More than 40 organizations fighting against OV from around the country joined the May 17 demonstration. Activists read a joint document demanding:

  1. The sanction of bills that guarantee human rights in gyneco-obstetric care (for example, one titled “Mandatory training with a gender and human rights perspective for healthcare personnel”).
  2. The implementation and creation of public policies that give visibility to this problem.
  3. The release of all people imprisoned due to obstetric emergencies. There was a dance performance that weaved testimonies of those that suffered OV, and a photography exhibit with images that represented instances of abuse. Finally, a percussion group made up of women and queer people closed the demonstration.  

Argentina’s Far-Right Government

All the claims and demands developed in this month’s demonstration are taking place in the shadow of a significant political and economic crises.

Since December 2023, the far-right government of Javier Milei has tried to reverse basic rights through massive defunding of state agencies and ministries, including those carrying out gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive rights programs; cuts in public health and educational budgets; calls to repeal legal abortion; and many others that threaten social, cultural, economic and political rights.

From the green tide for abortion rights, Argentina is giving way to the red tide so that bodily autonomy is respected in all moments of our reproductive and sexual lives. 

These measures are generating unusual levels of poverty in the country. For this reason, the protest carried out by the feminist activists fighting against VO demonstrates a significant effort to recognize this type of gender-based violence and to acknowledge the sovereignty of the bodies of those who menstruate, gestate, give birth and are born. In these times of right-wing encroachment on our rights, feminist activism is needed more than ever.

From the green tide for abortion rights, Argentina is giving way to the red tide so that bodily autonomy is respected in all moments of our reproductive and sexual lives. 

The Importance of Using ‘Obstetric Violence’ Over ‘Mistreatment’

Due to the efforts of Latin American activists, the term OV has gained increased traction over the past decade.

In 2018 the CEDAW wrote the first decision on this issue embracing the concept. In 2019 the UN used OV for the first time in a report on violence against women. Despite this, the use of OV is not prevalent in the U.S., as it is resisted in particular by health care professionals who argue inclusion of the word ‘violence’ might harm patient-doctor relationships and prefer to use the term ‘mistreatment’ instead.

This is the language that emerged from women’s experiences and grassroots activism and thus centers the voices of those who suffer from the practice.

We believe, however, that the adoption of OV as the term to label this kind of abuse constitutes the right step forward.

In the first place, this is the language that emerged from women’s experiences and grassroots activism and thus centers the voices of those who suffer from the practice.

Second, the new language connects this abuse with a larger concept, that of gender-based violence, pointing to the structural roots of these incidents: the patriarchal organization of Western medicine and reproductive health care in particular.

Finally, OV implies a politization of labor and birth, pushing us to analyze reproductive health care in terms of power relations and to question who is making the decisions and who is the passive recipient of them.

Latin America is leading the way in the fight against obstetric violence. It is time for the U.S. to follow. 

Up next:

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