Mothering has the capacity to be an empowering, challenging, and rewarding experience. However, this article reviews some of the ways that mothering as a survivor of sexual assault or/and having a child who is the result of intimate relationship rape can be all of the above while also traumatizing, triggering, mind-numbing, terrifying, silencing, painful, and heartbreaking. Additionally, co-parenting with someone who has sexually assaulted you is a lifelong trial that requires negotiation between taking care of yourself and taking care of your child(ren).
Last night I heard the screaming
Then a silence that chilled my soul
There are many circumstances that lead to a child being conceived without consent. It may be that the wombn (a term I use to represent all individuals who use their womb in a reproductive capacity irrespective of their gender representation) didn’t want to participate in sex and their partner ‘convinces’ them to the point where they are no longer putting up resistance. In this case, these wombn know that they were coerced and that it was NOT consensual. They may not be ready to admit to themselves that what took place was rape and that their partner had violated them. They only know that it did not feel okay, they did not consent, and that their wishes were not respected.
When a pregnancy takes place as a result of rape, outside of intimate relationships, the wombn may have various options, depending on where they are located and their circumstances. If they get medical treatment within 72 hours following the assault they may opt to use an emergency contraception (morning after pill) to prevent a pregnancy, but it`s not a guarantee. For individuals who are in precarious situations with agents of the state (i.e. undocumented immigrants, freedom fighters with a warrant for their arrest, sex workers, teenagers under the supervision of social services, etc.) and/or their assault is incest related, and/or because they are gender non-conforming*, seeking medical treatment by going to the hospital/ clinic is not an option, and they may have no choice but to wait and see if they become pregnant.
If pregnant, wombn may terminate their pregnancy, ‘choose’ to keep the baby, or the circumstances /individuals may make the ‘choice’ for them. But is it really a choice when the conception was forced upon them through rape? Is it truly a choice when they do not have agency in becoming a parent?
Before we take a step
Before we walk down that path
Before I make any promises
Before you have regrets
Before we talk commitment
Let me tell you of my past
All I’ve seen and all I’ve done
The things I’d like to forget
At this point in my life
Access to abortion is limited based on the laws that govern regions and regulations (for example, second and third term abortions may not be permitted), availability of practitioners/institutions, cost of procedure, and lack of/limited counselling, etc.. And if an individual falls under one of the precarious groups that I mentioned above, inviting the state and its various agencies, including health and social services, into one’s womb might end up being more harmful than helpful. Consequently, some may go underground and try to induce an abortion themselves, using alternative methods. These are often dangerous to the wombn and foetus and could lead to long-term consequences. Alternatively, there are trained traditional healers, midwives, and birthkeepers** who are trained in terminating pregnancies in a safe way. However, it remains a crime and may be punishable by law in many places. Both wombn and abortion practitioners risk being arrested and incarcerated by participating in this process that brings a little bit of agency to the wombn during an excruciating period in their lives. Juliana Britto, in Feministing, reports that in the Unites States:
“Women are one of the fastest growing prison populations not because they have suddenly begun to commit more crimes but because mass incarceration is becoming increasingly profitable, and is increasingly being relied upon as a tool of social control.”
In Canada, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator:
“The number of federally incarcerated Black inmates has increased by 75% (767 Black inmates in 2002/03 to 1340 Black inmates in 2011/12) with most of this increase occurring in the last 6 years (2006/07 to 2011/12)10. Black inmates now account for 9.3%11 of the total federal prison population (up from 6.1% in 2002/03) while representing approximately just 2.9%12 of the Canadian population.”
In particular, the rate of Black women in federal prisons in Canada is rising quickly.
“Over the past 10 years, the number of incarcerated Black women fluctuated very little between 2002 and 2010, at which point the number increased by 54% and then again by another 28% between 2010 and 2012. The number of incarcerated Black women appears to be rising quickly.”
After an assault, some may end up carrying a child to full term due to a number of circumstances: lack of an an abortion clinic within close proximity, deadline for a low-risk abortion has passed, and/or they do not have the financial means to pay for the procedure, etc. Others, because of religious and/or spiritual convictions, or simply because they do not have a choice (ie. in the case of a minor, will end up birthing the baby. The wombn may give the child up for adoption or “choose” to parent that child. If the abortion is unsuccessful or the wombn change their mind halfway, they might end up birthing a child with congenital malformations and/or with special needs.
In addition, there may be mental health concerns with the child/adult that might ensue due to unsuccessful abortions. Medical experts have yet to prove it, but have expressed anecdotally a link between schizophrenia and traumas, although the types of traumas have yet to be fully elaborated.
You see it’s been a hard road the road I’m traveling on
And if I take your hand I might lead you down the path to ruin
I’ve had a hard life I’m just saying it so you’ll understand
That right now, right now, I’m doing the best I can
At this point in my life
The growing incidence/occurrence of obstetrical interventions and violence makes it increasingly difficult for wombn to birth in a safe, respectful and loving way. For a survivor of sexual assault, birthing can be a very triggering and challenging experience even if the child was conceived through consent. If birth workers are not adequately trained to nurture and support survivors they could cause further harm. Viola P. painstakingly describes her birthing story in the following way to Humanize Birth, a Canadian non-profit organization:
”[The nurse] immediately demanded that I get on my back and try to push with my knees pinned to my chest, but I couldn’t do it. She kept asking “Why”, and I wanted to scream “because I was raped”, but I couldn’t. I offered to labour in any other position, but I couldn’t labour while pinned down. During my research on hospital birth I had seen that position and just viewing it made me feel nauseous. But, I was completely incapable of announcing to a room full of strangers that I had been raped.’’
She further captures the reality of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the birth,
“In my darkest moments I would lament that even as an adult I am incapable of protecting my body against rape. After about five months of mental anguish I felt like I was losing my mind because all I could think about was the event. The disturbing invasive memories were constant.”
Parenting / mental health
You see I’ve been climbing stairs but mostly stumbling down
I’ve been reaching high always losing ground
You see I’ve been reaching high but always losing ground
You see I’ve conquered hills but I still have mountains to climb
And right now right now I’m doing the best I can
At this point in my life
While working through the trauma of sexual assault, the mental hardship and perseverance required to remain sane and present for one’s child(ren) is a non-linear and fine line between sanity and insanity. This fragile state of ‘living’ is further compounded when one has to co-parent with the person who has harmed them. Even after wombn leave their former partners, the abuse will most likely continue if healing has not taken place. How does one co-parent with their rapist? As Julie Boyd Cole writes:
“Unfortunately, co-parenting gives an abusive or narcissist parent a clear path of unintended court-sanctioned abuse, power and control of the ex-partner and the children, instead of protecting the well-being of the child. Co-parenting can give rise to all sorts of emotional terrorism when involving an abuser.’’
At the macro level, rape continues to be used as a tool of war to not only terrorize a population but also to perform genocide by impregnating girls and women. The state’s complicity in further harming survivors is documented internationally. For example, in the United States, wombn have been forced by family courts to co-parent with their rapist even after he was previously convicted of the rape. In Quebec, a judge can allow the mother’s history of sexual assault to be introduced in a child custody hearing for the sole purpose of discrediting her although her parenting abilities were never in question.
What is the best interest of the child? How does one parent when the state, its agents and the community are causing further harm by undermining the mother’s well-being under the guise of doing “what’s best for the child” and the child’s “right” to have his father in the picture? Just as importantly, what is the impact on the child who witnesses the symptoms of PTSD in her mother every time she interacts with the rapist, who is also her father?
These are questions urging us to think of solutions outside of the box, and outside of the legal system because inherently state agencies are not structured to protect mothers as survivors of sexual assault; in fact, they can cause further harm. What are some of the strategies that survivors and their support network can use to navigate/manage and heal from these difficult situations that touch our womb and spirit? In future articles, we will explore some of the questions posed above in-depth and will elaborate on what we mean when we speak of the rights of survivors and of children.
Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
The police Always come late
If they come at all
And when they arrive
They say they can’t interfere
With domestic affairs
Between a man and his wife
And as they walk out the door
The tears well up in her eyes
Written by Hirut Eyob
* Gender Non-Conforming – A term for individuals whose gender expression challenges society’s expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender non-conforming individuals may or may not alter their bodies through the use of hormones or surgery. Gender non-conforming people may or may not identify as trans, male or female. http://urge.org/reproductive-justice-glossary/
** “The term Birth Keeper is the marriage of “Earth Keeper and Birth. Earth Keeper is a Native American Word for Eco-activists as well as holders of the sacred Earth-based wisdoms.” http://www.birthkeeper.com.au/
Amnesty International, Apr. 15, 2015 Nigeria: Abducted women and girls forced to join Boko Haram
Center on law & globalization, July 14, 2014, Why Rape Is Effective for Genocide
Daily Mail, Aug 22, 2013, Teenage girl sues state for forcing her to have ’16-year relationship’ with rapist who fathered her child after he applies for right to see their daughter
Divorced Moms, December 21, 2014 Co-Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting: What’s The Difference?
Humanize Birth, June 21, 2013 Viola: My midwife said that she had the right to do whatever she wanted to my body if she thought it was best for baby
Juliana Britto, Feministing, Dec. 22, 2014, Pregnant Women Aren’t Being Arrested to Protect their Fetuses
Medabon, May 11, 2015 Medical and Service Delivery Guidelines
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC), Intimate Partner Violence Consensus, J Obstet Gynaecol Can 2005;27(4):365–388, Statement
World Health Organization, October 200-6, Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic