In former Soviet countries from Russia to Armenia, being a mother is promoted by church and state as the most important achievement for women. Various governments in the region are actively encouraging women to have more children, including through new financial incentives.
In early 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of a "very difficult demographic period" and pledged state funding for new mothers as part of a bid to accelerate the country’s birth rate. "Russia's fate and its historical outlook depend on how many of us there are," he said.
Given Putin’s obsession with the reproduction of Russian women, you might expect the government to ensure that childbirth is a safe and positive experience. But pregnant women face unacceptable dangers and mistreatment giving birth – and COVID-19 restrictions have made this worse.
A week after the pandemic was declared in March, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued specific guidance on childbirth during COVID-19. Among other things, it said that women giving birth should be treated with respect; be allowed birth companions; and be supported to breastfeed and have skin-to-skin contact with newborns even if they have the virus.
But in Murmansk, women with COVID-19 were separated from their newborns until their mothers tested negative for the virus. One woman who asked to remain anonymous said that these new mothers were told: “if you oppose, we will take your babies to another department under police escort."
Many Russian women have also had to give birth without their partners. Even private obstetric centres have banned birth companions. Meanwhile several maternity wards were made into COVID-19 units, forcing women to either give birth at home or find a hospital further away, with doctors they didn’t know.
“If you oppose, we will take your babies to another department under police escort."
Reproductive abuse was widespread in Russia, as in many conservative countries, even before the pandemic. The problem is rooted in gender stereotypes about what it means to be a girl and a woman.
The romanticisation of childbirth, the lack of sex education, and religious narratives on the ‘sanctity of motherhood’ has resulted in many women both longing to have children from an early age, and feeling pressured to do so.
Putin has also found common ground with evangelical Christians in the US and is trying to make his post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity, with the help nationalist and ultra-conservative Russian Orthodox Church.
Earlier this year, a Russian Orthodox priest compared women in civil partnerships to “prostitutes”, while conservative politicians have been trying to introduce a "tax on childlessness" and to prohibit abortions (which have been legal for generations and are included in publicly-funded healthcare services).
Conservative forces also have used the pandemic to push back against state-funded abortions. A number of Russian hospitals used a ban on elective surgeries to delay abortions by classifying them as ‘non-essential’ services. In Moscow, only three out of 44 hospitals continued these procedures.
These moves endanger women’s rights, health and financial futures. In Moscow, one woman described having to take out a loan in order to access an abortion in a private clinic. Before this, she said a doctor at a public facility told her: “If you seek the truth, you’ll miss all the deadlines.”
Another 29-year-old woman, in the city of Petrozavodsk, said she tested negative for COVID-19 but was denied an abortion at a health centre because she had a cough. She said that the centre’s staff told her: “Go and find a place where you can get an abortion with such a cough.”
Exposed as hypocrites?
Around the world, too many women have faced abuse and mistreatment during childbirth, and this seems to have increased under the pandemic. An ongoing investigation by openDemocracy has documented cases of the WHO’s guidelines being contravened in at least 45 countries.
Globally, women have been forcibly separated from newborns; required to give birth "alone" without support from partners or relatives; denied pain medication. They have been shouted at and treated "like machines". At some hospitals, all women have been subjected to ‘mandatory’ caesarean sections.
In Ukraine, where the president encouraged people to use the lockdown to have more babies, one woman told openDemocracy: “My husband and I will handcuff ourselves together if doctors won't allow him in.”
In this country and in Armenia, restrictions on women giving birth have outlasted lockdown regulations – leaving women in situations where they can go with their partners to restaurants but not to maternity wards.
Top doctors and lawyers have condemned the “shocking and disturbing” treatment of women giving birth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conservative governments and groups who claim to care so much about motherhood, babies and birth rates have the power to ensure that women have respectful, safe and positive birth experiences. Will they use it? Or will they expose themselves, including to their supporters, as hypocrites?