International Women’s Day – Justice for the Survivors of Symphysiotomy


Mothers wait at a maternity hospital. Image from ‘Mothers Against The Odds’ #Mato2012. Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan had their eyes opened to one of the greatest injustices ever inflicted on Irish Mothers in Ireland’s maternity hospitals while filming ‘Mothers Against The Odds’ in Kenya.

Should International Women’s Day be renamed End Violence Against Women Day? What is remarkable about the advance of women’s rights in many Western countries has been the growth in violence against women across the globe. Rape as a weapon of war seems to be increasingly evident in many armed conflicts. But that is only part of a bigger and very disturbing picture. Indeed, depending on how you define violence, the growth in the porn industry masks the growth of the vilest exploitation, including sexual slavery, prevalent even in some of the most liberal democracies. The latter maybe partly explained by our restrictive immigration laws which make it very easy for traffickers and sex slavers to deceive women and young girls in poorer countries with offers of jobs that don’t exist as they can never hope to legitimately enter these countries they see as lands of opportunity.

Against that background few countries can point the finger at others when it comes to tackling violence against women. Indeed, the prevalence of domestic violence in all cultures and across all social classes underlines just how big a challenge it is to create a world where women and girls everywhere can aspire to live in relative safety.

However, there is one area that one might imagine women would enjoy real protection and freedom from violence and that is when it comes to giving birth. I suppose that is what really shocked us when we were filming ‘Mothers Against The Odds’, just how dangerous giving birth can be when the rights of  mothers are not respected.   We went to Kenya expecting to be shocked by the challenges women face when they seek to give birth. While the picture is challenging, it is clear that the country is in a development phase and there is hope for the future because women are seeking to assert their rights.  But it is dangerous to give birth because women for the most part are second class citizen.

Women in Kenya as an experienced midwife explained to us are treated like children.  They are treated like assets to be traded because they have no voice. This underlined the well-worn truth that the quality of a woman’s health is in direct proportion to her rights in society.

However, the really shocking and disturbing experience for us was in the filming of the Irish part of the documentary when we met the women who call themselves survivors of symphysiotomy.  They were subjected to a “barbaric” procedure which involved breaking their pelvises when they went into hospital to have their babies.  It is claimed the rationale for this procedure was to overcome the natural limit on child-bearing that the cesarean section imposed.

The cesarean was the routine procedure for complicated or problem deliveries but was less in keeping with Catholic Church teaching as it seemed to impose a limit on the number of children a woman could have. Sounds incredible, but the only way one can rationalise why in 1944 this “barbaric” procedure was re-introduced into some leading Irish maternity hospitals.

The Catholic Church placed a very high value on sex for procreation and the then  very powerful Archbishop of Dublin Archbishop John Charles Mc Quaid (1940-1972) saw artificial birth control as reprehensible. Against that background it is hard not to see him welcoming something like the symphysiotomy procedure if it advanced his agenda.  However, as to whether he was aware of the extreme pain that was inflicted on women in carrying out that procedure is unknown.

On International Women’s Day we must wonder why the Irish state has still not properly addressed the demand for justice from the survivors of symphysiotomy, especially when the last of these procedures in Irish maternity hospital was only carried out in the mid-Eighties? All the more important if we are serious about wanting to address the global culture of increasing violence against women.

Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan


Mothers Against The Odds

March 8, 2013

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