Alarm Bells at 57th Session UN Status of Women #CSW57 – Chilling Effect on Filmmakers ‘Mothers Against The Odds’


Alarm Bells at 57th Session UN Status of Women #CSW57 – Chilling Effect on Filmmakers ‘Mothers Against The Odds’

Anne Daly  &  Ronan Tynan



Alarm bells went off when we read reports last week as to why it was proving so difficult for a major UN conference in New York to agree on action to end violence against women and girls.  This is because we had just filmed a documentary in Kenya and Ireland called ‘Mothers Against The Odds’ and found that the reasons being advanced to hold up agreement were the cause of very serious, indeed unimaginable pain and suffering being imposed on some women and girls when they sought to give birth. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt had sought to incorporate in the text the right of any country to justify denying women’s rights on the basis of national laws, culture and religion; factors that explain why so many women and girls are often not only denied proper maternal health care, but their urgent medical needs are over-ruled by society’s perception of what is right, with very cruel consequences for them.  


All societies tend to attach great importance to having children.  But we found that is quite different from seeking to ensure that all mothers without exception have a happy and safe delivery.  In fact there are few human phenomena where the rights of the primary person – the mother – in a process that can be life threatening are so easily flouted and ignored.  The truth of that statement was brought into very sharp relief for us in comparing the experiences of mothers in Ireland and Kenya, and the kind of violence some of them experienced when they sought to give birth.  Indeed, it proved such a revelation that it also opened our eyes to one of the great unresolved scandals against women in Ireland. That was not what we had expected. But press reports this week about problems at the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, with representatives from 131 countries, reminded us just why we got such a surprise when we sought to film ‘Mothers Against The Odds’.


To be truthful we went to Kenya expecting to find very painful challenges women can face when they seek to give birth given the statistics which suggest that a mother’s chances of survival can be as low as 25/1 in some areas. While the picture is indeed difficult, 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 one cannot hide the reality that it can be dangerous to give birth because many women for the most part are second class citizen.  To be more specific: their rights are infringed and their lives even put at risk by the prevailing culture and traditions in some places when they become pregnant. Mind you, it is also very important to underline that maternity care is not free as we discovered. Many women are poor and some are even detained in the hospitals until their bills were paid.  So that while culture and tradition pose real challenges, economic deprivation can prove fatal in certain situations.  In fact the status and lack of respects for the rights of poor women, makes their poverty more oppressive, and obviously makes them even more vulnerable when problems arise during pregnancy as the mothers themselves explained to us. 

An experienced Kenyan midwife described the reality of that lower status by informing us that women tend to be treated like children.  They can be perceived as no more than assets to be traded in some instances 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 – a fact bourne out in the stories of the mothers we met in different parts of the country.

However, the unexpectedly disturbing experience for us was in filming the Irish part of the documentary when we met the women who call themselves survivors of symphysiotomy.  They were subjected to what a leading physician described as a “barbaric” procedure which involved severing or breaking their pelvises when they went into hospital to have their babies.  It was claimed by one leading researcher that the rationale for this procedure was to overcome the natural limit on child-bearing that the cesarean section can impose. Remarkably the cesarean section was the routine procedure for complicated or problem deliveries in the hospitals at the time but was less in keeping with Catholic Church teaching as it imposed a limit on the number of children a woman could have. Sounds incredible, but for us it is the only way one can rationalise or even try to understand 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 McQuaid (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, and the quite horrific lifetime consequences it produced for many of the mothers we met, and are recounted by them in our documentary, is unknown.  As far as we could establish the last symphysiotomy was carried out in an Irish maternity hospital in 1984.

Interestingly many Kenyan women we told about the experience of Irish mothers who were forced to have a symphysiotomy were not surprisingly quite appalled that such a cruel procedure would be imposed upon anyone, especially when the cesarean section was available as an option when problems arose. One leading gynecologist in Mombassa, co-incidentally very active in the Catholic Church said in her knowledge such procedures were very rarely carried out in Kenya, and only in serious emergency situations when access to a maternity hospital was impossible in remote rural areas.  

Given our experiences it is perhaps easy to appreciate why Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in seeking invoke local laws, culture and religion as an excuse to deny women, especially mothers their most basic rights caused us some alarm – and that is putting it mildly. We have seen first hand how easily such considerations can cost a mother her life, or in the case of Ireland’s survivors of symphysiotomy a lifetime of pain and extreme suffering because a procedure was carried out for reasons quite divorced from their medical needs.

It is important to emphasise how easily incredible cruelty can be inflicted on women and girls when they have perceived to have no rights and little or no status.  In Ireland many of the survivors of symphysiotomy testify that they were not consulted or their permission sought before that procedure was carried out. In Kenya on the other hand some women are even been beaten and told to “shut up” when they cry out during labour in maternity hospitals.  These are only shocking examples of what we found.  But the key point is that if culture, tradition, religion or national laws do not strongly assert a woman’s right to be treated with dignity and respect, cruelty and abuse can become common place even in maternity hospitals during delivery!

Against that background we found quite moving the courage of the head of Egypt’s delegation, politician and diplomat Mervat Tallawy, who surprised and delighted the overwhelming majority of delegates and onlookers in the crowded U.N. conference room when she ignored the Brotherhood and announced that Egypt would join the consensus and agree declaration adopted by the 57th Session of CSW.

“International solidarity is needed for women’s empowerment and preventing this regressive mood, whether in the developing countries or developed, or in the Middle East in particular,” Tallawy was reported by The Washington Post as telling reporters afterwards. “It’s a global wave of conservatism, of repression against women, and this paper is a message that if we can get together, hold power together, we can be a strong wave against this conservatism…..I believe in women’s cause. I don’t take money from the government. I work voluntarily. If they want to kick me out they can. But I will not change my belief in women. Women are the slaves of this age. This is unacceptable, and particularly in our region.”

The spirit of courage and determination shown by Mervat Tallawy we also found mirrored in the work of women in Kenya and Ireland as they seek to protect and advance the rights of women and girls.  The UN CSW took a step forward in New York last week in agreeing that document but it is only through hard work and determination on the ground that real progress will be made in stopping escalating violence against women and girls.

Anne Daly & Ronan Tynan

Filmmakers – ‘Mothers Against The Odds’

To see the Trailer and the complete documentary film click here:

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