Two years ago, I decided to do something that I wished someone had already done: I wanted to set up a clinic that would provide specialist health services for women who had experienced sexual violence.
If I’m honest, the motivation was slightly selfish. I was attacked around a decade before, and though I’d managed to move on and live a good life, I still struggled with healthcare. Medical environments reminded me of the forensic-testing suite I’d had to go to, and I worried invasive procedures would lead to flashbacks of the attack. I ended up with no asthma inhalers, no coil, no cervical screening, no health service – despite being blessed with an NHS. The reason? Not my actions, but his.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Justice, 85,000 women are raped every year. I decided to interview 30 others and find out more. The results stunned me. More than half of the 30 I sampled from across the country said that being raped had left them feeling unable to attend cervical screening; more than a third said that it had affected their choice of contraception; and seven said they hadn’t been for any STI testing since the attack. Four of the 30 said they weren’t registered with a GP either. They needed to feel in control of their own bodies; they wanted clinicians who were specially trained. Women wanted to access healthcare in an environment where they could be honest about having been raped and its effects, but wouldn’t be told to go to the police and report it. Many of them weren’t mentally ready to face that court process, but wanted their physical health intact. Their words correlated with statistics from the Home Office, showing only 15 per cent of women who experience sexual violence choose to report it to police.
It’s difficult to hear 30 women tell you exactly what they need, and do nothing about it. So I set up My Body Back Project to provide clinics for women who have experienced sexual violence. At the time, it sounded unrealistic – I had zero medical training, no money, no team. But it’s worked out, via many good people helping me along the way. In August, we started the world’s first sexual-health clinic for rape survivors at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, which provides cervical screening, STI testing and contraceptive fitting.
One woman told me that she felt her rapist had been able to ‘hijack’ the birth of her daughter, years after the crime itself took place. Throughout labour, she was told she was ‘being oversensitive’ when touched
But, in the first few months of us starting My Body Back Clinic, I realised there was far more work to be done. Jennifer (name changed) was one of the women I met. She told me that she felt her rapist had been able to “hijack” the birth of her daughter, years after the crime itself took place. Throughout labour, she was told she was “being oversensitive” when touched, so she explained the reason why, several times to the different staff who came on shift. This meant recalling what had happened several times, before being given gas and air. At this point, Jennifer began hallucinating that her rapist was in the room with her.
She said: “For the last year, I have been thinking that I would love one more baby, but felt I couldn't have one because I didn't want to risk this happening again.”
This is not uncommon. With vaginal examinations being carried out, contractions forcing women out of control of their own body and strangers constantly touching them without consent, I have heard numerous stories similar to Jennifer’s.
This is inexcusable. After all, why are women paying for their rapist’s actions with their sanity, years after the attack? That is why, next month, the My Body Back Project is starting the world’s first maternity clinic for women who have experienced sexual violence with Barts Health NHS Trust.
We have created a different birthing pathway to ensure women who have experienced sexual violence receive the sensitive and specific care they need.
The My Body Back Maternity Clinic will be run at the Royal London Hospital by me, consultant midwife Inderjeet Kaur and obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Rehan Khan. Women can give birth with us, have pregnancy examinations, gynaecology tests after labour, breastfeeding advice, specialist antenatal classes and support sessions before, during and after labour.
We will also run a preconception care service for women who have experienced sexual violence in the past and are thinking of having children, but are worried about how pregnancy and labour will affect them.
According to the World Health Organization, one in three women experience some form of sexual violence. So, if women globally are bearing these two incredibly common experiences of labour and rape, could it be that prospective mothers all over the world are also carrying the suffocating weight of the same pain Jennifer described?
The very least we can do is make pregnancy and labour as pain-free as possible for rape survivors. Considering the need, I don’t understand why this has not been done before.
Could it be that women services are still not important enough to be prioritised for healthcare funding? Rather than stopping at asking that question, it’s more effective to provide an answer to it. I hope that this new clinic is only the beginning of one.
To contact the My Body Back Maternity Clinic, an NHS service free to UK residents, email: email@example.com