Kurdish activists, members of the Kongra Star women’s rights movement in Rojava, have solidarized with the struggle of Croatian women against dehumanizing hospital practices in the context of reproductive health by making their own contribution to the current campaign #PrekimoimoŠutnju (#BreakTheSilence).
This Saturday, the editorial board of Libela received photographs and footage of members of Kongra Star in which they are holding a sign saying „Solidarity from Rojava to the Women of Croatia #PrekinimoŠutnju #BreakTheSilence“ and chanting “Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” – a widespread slogan within the North Syrian women’s movements which translates to “Woman, Life, Freedom”.
Although the action was supported by many organizations within the state, including Libela, this gesture indicates that the outcry of women has reached places as far as Rojava – which has, because of the ongoing revolution, become widely known for its significant advancements regarding women’s rights. This expression of international support suggests that the gravity of the problem is much greater than many skeptics who have been questioning the credibility of victims of violence may let one believe.
The recent personal testimony of the parliamentary representative Ivana Ninčević-Lesandrić regarding her experience with anesthesia-free surgery has prompted a general protest against maltreatment within the Croatian health system – namely, during childbirth or other medical procedures related to female reproductive health.
The traumatic experiences of women who experienced various forms of obstetric violence in Croatian hospitals – from having their uterus forcefully scraped without anaesthesia while their arms and legs are tied up, to receiving episiotomies and subsequent stitches without being administered anything to numb the pain – have absolutely flooded the Croatian public space throughout the last week.
After Roda Association’s initial compiling of about 400 shocking testimonies, that prompted the launching the currently active campaign titled #PrekinimoŠutnju, and submitting them to the Ministry of Health, an increasing number of women decided to speak against the inhuman treatment that should be considered unacceptable to any civilized society.
“After I gave birth, I was stitched up without any anesthesia. I was crying in pain. As the tears streamed down my face, I asked the doctor to either stop or at least give me a painkiller. His answer was that I have to endure this because he is doing it for my husband.”
“Biopsy, Virovitica 2008, I cried as [the doctor] ripped out bits of my uterus. ‘While you were fucking, you did not cry, so shut up now.’ He told me.”
These, as well as many other statements that recently echoed through the country, represent nothing but the tip of the iceberg that is the shocking violation of women’s (reproductive) rights by healthcare workers. The testimonies continue to grow in numbers and thus far, the campaign has exceeded the limits of one sole organization and has spread like wildfire among women from all walks of life.
The proof that the need for participation this campaign exceeds the boundaries of a particular organization, transcends solely Croatian activism for women’s rights and represents a kind of human duty is that the campaign #PrekinimoŠutnju soon spread to the neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. Bosnian women’s experiences bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Croatian women, pointing to the fact that the core of the issue lies not just in the omissions of the Croatian health care system. On the contrary, the omissions within the healthcare system are merely a consequence of a much broader problem, the roots of which are not dependent on any geo-political determinants.
Moreover, the so-called obstetric violence, which includes a whole spectrum of dehumanizing practices – from forced medical interventions, through refusal to manage the patient’s pain, to unnecessarily invasive procedures (such as doctors ‘loosening up’ a pregnant woman’s uterus by using a fist) – is a problem affecting women all over the world and should thus be addressed accordingly.
It can be argued that this form of violence is not just a consequence of poor health policies or insufficient equipment of the hospital. Obstetric violence is nothing more but another manifestation of objectification of the female body and the still present notion of women not being considered equal and active participants of life within the public sphere.
It is another form of violence that affects women precisely because they’re – women.
Bearing in mind the numerous experiences that the Croatian women recently made public, it is impossible to ignore the similarity regarding the choice of words used when describing obstetric violence in comparison to those used to describe sexual violence. “Like I wasn’t human”, “I didn’t have control”, “my autonomy was taken away” and similar linguistic choices are overwhelmingly predominant among women while describing both forms of violence, indicating that the cause of violence is to be examined from outside the medical practice – more specifically, it is necessary to analyze it within the context of gender. Reducing a woman to the level of an inanimate object, the sole purpose of which is to provide nutrition for an unborn child, is the result of deep-rooted patriarchal norms that are present everywhere. These norms disregard a woman’s worth as a person with no relation to anyone by herself, and instead measure it by how ‘useful’ she is – either to a man, or in this case, a child.
By correlation, if the pain a woman’s experiences does not harm anyone other than her, it is simply ignored and deemed unimportant.
Furthermore, the normalization of this form of violence arises from the presence of the ‘dominant male – submissive female’ dynamics characterized by a falsely perceived natural authority of a man and the natural inclination of a woman to submit to said authority. This dynamics, among other things, often manifests in the form of proclaiming men more qualified to discuss certain topics, even in cases of issues that specifically and exclusively affect women – such as reproductive rights during childbirth.
The ‘dominant male – submissive female’ dynamics is often not consciously present, but can also include various internalized manifestations of the aforementioned concept of women as ‘decision acceptors’ instead of ‘decision makers’ – e.g. in the form of a woman’s personal perception of her pain as inevitable, and her suffering as the only natural and socially acceptable condition.
Due to the aforementioned reasons, the internationalization of the struggle against obstetric violence becomes necessary, and solidarity among women is absolutely crucial.
As the American feminist author Adrienne Rich once stated: „As long as birth—metaphorically or literally—remains an experience of passively handing over our minds and our bodies to male authority and technology, other kinds of social change can only minimally change our relationship to ourselves, to power and to the world outside our bodies.“
In order for the successful fight against inhumane treatment of women to become truly possible and for its results to become viable in the long run, the area of struggle must be expanded beyond the context of public health, beyond the context of a single country and must strive towards finding a ‘common ground’ that encompasses all women.
The long-term success of this struggle and all the struggles for a better society that are to come will require international co-operation among women and mutual support in the fight against the common enemy – a normalized social dynamics that justifies gender based violence by falsely rendering women’s subordination to (male) authority a ‘natural’ state of affairs.
Kongra Star therefore exclaims: “We as Star Congress want to extend our deepest Solidarity to all our Croatian sisters. We support your struggle. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Together we will build a free future for all the women in the World.“
Author: Katarina Pavičić-Ivelja
Biographical Statement: I am a Croatian journalist interested in political topics and various human right’s issues as well as an array of topics concerning feminism with an emphasis on the women’s liberation in Rojava.
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