Last year I met a woman who told me that, apart from the day she was raped, giving birth to her child was the most traumatic day of her life.
Throughout labour and her baby son’s first few hours of life, images of her rapist’s face and of the rape itself continuously flashed through her mind.
With vaginal examinations being carried out, contractions forcing her out of control of her own body, and strangers constantly touching her without her consent, she began remembering and reliving the rape that she thought she had left behind many years before.
If that was hard for you to read, imagine how hard it is to endure.
For those first, crucial, hours of her child’s life she couldn’t bond with him because she was too busy trying to keep herself sane.
Throughout her pregnancy, Sarah (I have changed her name for privacy) had avoided antenatal appointments. She was frightened of being so physically out of control and of experiencing flashbacks of what had happened. She didn’t know how to tell staff what was running through her mind so she simply avoided all pregnancy check-ups.
Until her waters broke. Then, the flashbacks started and she couldn’t control any of it anymore. “I remember thinking ‘as soon as this is over I am going to overdose.’ Being so out of control of my body again, it made me remember everything. Then I started seeing his face throughout the labour; it pushed me over the edge.”
Luckily she didn’t take her life. But she did suffer, alone, for months afterwards, and was unable to attend any of her neonatal appointments either, which put her and her baby’s health at risk.
I met Sarah after I started the My Body Back Project last year. She attended our clinic designed for women who have experienced sexual violence to have cervical screening, STI testing and contraceptive fitting in an environment where they are comfortable they have control over the procedures. Here I worked with her and countless other women with similar stories, who told me of the past maternal trauma they struggled with when they had their babies.
This is inexcusable. After all, why are women paying for their rapist’s actions with their sanity, years after the attack, simply because they want to have children? That is why next month the My Body Back Project is starting the world’s first maternity clinic for women who have experienced sexual violence with Barts Health NHS Trust.
We have created a different birthing pathway to ensure women who have experienced sexual violence receive the sensitive and specific care they need.
The My Body Back Maternity Clinic will be run at the Royal London Hospital by myself, consultant midwife Inderjeet Kaur, and obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Rehan Khan. Women can give birth with us, have pregnancy examinations, gynaecology tests after labour, breastfeeding advice, specialist antenatal classes, and support sessions before, during and after labour.
We will also run a pre-conceptual care service for women who have experienced sexual violence in the past and are thinking of having children, but are worried about how pregnancy and labour will affect them.
This is why I felt that something needed to change. Explaining her labour, Sarah said: “I wasn’t scared of the physical pain, but of the mental pain it would set off. I couldn’t stop it, I was screaming for it to stop.
“There was no one or nothing there to help me. The pain was so much that if a gun had been to hand I would have shot myself in the head.”
Sarah described how she was “tensing up so much” due to the flashbacks she was experiencing that she managed to stop her own contractions – which could have been triggered by a doctor carrying out a vaginal examination without her consent. “Under any other circumstances someone shoving their hand into your vagina without your consent is classed as a sexual assault,” she told me. “We weren’t in an emergency situation and he didn’t have to do that.”
Throughout the 36-hour delivery period, a midwife also told her “to grow up, to get on with it, that women all over the world do it”.
That’s right. Women all over the world do give birth – and one in three women all over the world also experience some form of sexual violence, according to the World Health Organisation. So if women are bearing these two incredibly common experiences, could it be that prospective mothers all over the world are also carrying the suffocating weight of the same pain Sarah described?
The WHO also states that one in three women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. When women are giving birth to their partner’s child, it’s not uncommon for the man by their side to have raped them at some point.
The very least we can do is make pregnancy and labour as pain free as possible for rape survivors. Considering the need, I don’t understand why this has this not been done before.
Could it be that women services are still not important enough to be prioritised for healthcare funding? Rather than stopping at asking that question, it’s more effective to provide an answer to it. I hope that this new clinic is only the beginning of one.