Mothers Against the Odds

“How could incredible cruelty be imposed on many Irish mothers in a so called ‘civilised country’? We found the answer in Kenya.”

An Esperanza Production

Narrator – Brenda Fricker
Producer/Director – Ronan Tynan & Anne Daly

When we set out to film Mothers Against the Odds in Kenya and Ireland, we expected few surprises in comparing the two countries, especially given that Kenyan mothers have a 25/1 chance of dying giving birth, while Irish mothers enjoy much better odds at 48,000/1 – making this country one of the safest places on earth to have a child. However, our Kenyan experience opened our eyes to the all but hidden histories of a number Irish mothers, who were forced to endure a level of cruelty, up to recent times, that was both shocking and incomprehensible – and totally at odds with our initial expectations. Our experience in Kenya brought into sharp focus that very compelling story at home, which remains a very controversial and still unresolved part of our history. Observing the treatment of many Kenyan mothers today, helped us to understand how some Irish mothers, in former decades, found themselves at the receiving end, during child birth, of treatment that in any other context, might be described as torture!

How could a medical procedure, symphysiotomy, which one leading Obstetrician described as from the “Dark Ages”, be performed on some Irish mothers, when they went into hospital to have their babies, without their consent, and that in so many cases literally destroyed their lives? In a so-called Western country how could an operation, which TDs from all parties, in the Dail recently, compared to female genital mutilation in Africa, be performed in Irish hospitals, without these mothers even being informed?
We found the answers to these questions in Kenya, talking to mothers who are going through different, but very similar experiences, because, as one woman put it to us: they are deemed to be on a par with children! “Women are treated the same as children, they should not speak….” Women are second class citizens in a real sense in sections of Kenyan society. They are perceived to be of value certainly, but only in the sense that they “can be traded like assets”.

In comparing the experience of Irish and Kenyan mothers admittedly we expected the Irish experience to be dramatically better, because of the access of Irish mothers to “modern” maternity care, over the last several decades. In recent years, that certainly appears to be the case, with rare exceptions, for all mothers. However, in former decades, we came across the all but hidden histories of some Irish mothers, who were treated, like many Kenyan women are today, as people who “should not speak” and simply accept what is done to them for their own good – with horrific consequences in many cases.

What was shocking about the Irish experience is that the “modern” option – the caesarean section – was available for mothers in Irish hospitals, even in former decades, and many were able to avail of that operation when things went wrong. Therefore, why were any mothers – (the actual number is unknown but growing as new cases are still coming to light) – subjected to smyphysiotomies, without their consent? A barbaric procedure which involves fracturing the pelvis, and meant in almost all cases a life time of pain and suffering, that appears all the more cruel and incomprehensible given the fact that caesarean sections, were otherwise so routine in Irish hospitals, even at the time?

Kenya today allowed us to show how easily such cruelty could be performed against vulnerable mothers, without their consent. Kenyan women must submit to the prevailing demands of traditional culture, religion and the “superior” status of their husbands. A very conservative type of society, that also prevailed in Ireland, up to recently in historical terms. Indeed, a very good indication of just how hard it has been to free all women in Ireland from medical procedures, performed for religious rather than for health reasons, is provided by the fact that the last smyphysiotomies were performed here in the early Nineties.

A sobering thought is that smyphysiotomies were never the norm in Europe for handling difficult births. Indeed, they ceased to have any place in French maternal care in the late Eighteenth Century, and were discontinued in the UK in the mid Nineteenth Century! However, a very depressing fact, is that there are efforts in Europe to encourage that practise in Africa. This documentary offers compelling evidence why such efforts should be vigorously resisted.

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