By Sneha Singh
What happens when a woman gets pregnant due to a sexual assault? Does she still experience emotional fulfilment if the pregnancy was forced? Since patriarchy wants women to want children, can a woman choose to go against the patriarchal system and choose not to become a mother? And if in case a woman chooses to do so, she has to learn to live with the tags ‘selfish’, ‘narcissist’ and ‘emotionally cold’, reducing a woman’s existence to her biology.
Delving into the untouched topic of motherhood experienced by sexual assault survivors, one could easily find a link between violence, pregnancy, abortion and motherhood.
Violence against women exists in every society, and encompasses different forms of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. However, despite its scale and social impact, it remains largely under-reported and relatively under-researched in key areas and the topic of forced pregnancies is one such area.
Understanding the Motherhood Ideology
Often portrayed as just a mere role of women’s innate biology, patriarchy dictates the concept of motherhood. Patriarchal ideologies dominate society’s understanding of what a mother and a ‘good’ mother looks like.
Talking and focussing on the experience of motherhood and mothering is more important to understand what a woman goes through while she undergoes this huge transformation all by herself.
In the book ‘Complex Inequality and Working Mothers’, Clare O’Hagan quotes Ann Oakley where she terms the motherhood ideology as the “myth of motherhood”. Oakley argues that this myth has three popular assertions: the first is that children need mothers. The second is mothers need their children, and the third is that motherhood is the greatest achievement of a woman’s life.
In this scenario, becoming a mother is seen as the ultimate goal of a woman’s life, and children are construed as necessary to complete a women’s life. Woman who dare to say no to motherhood are not accepted by society and are termed as ‘incomplete’. Their experience or reason to not accept motherhood is often filtered through the lens of deficiency.
Nicholle La Vann, a documentary filmmaker from New York, who is working on a film ‘Reluctant love: A visual love letter of healing’, says that it took her 35 years to share her story. The film is a story about her journey as a mother, her forced pregnancy, her struggle and the stigma she faced. Nicholle is a survivor of violence and a mother to a child born out of rape.
“I was a child myself, and really didn’t understand the impact of having a child”, she says. “Less even how to deal with a child.” After she delivered her baby, Nicholle confesses to having struggled with feelings of regret and an unwelcome desire to hurt her child. “She kept reminding me of this terrible act”, Nichollle says “but I felt guilty, and I didn’t want to act on those feelings”.
This is one dark side of motherhood that remains veiled and is not much talked about. Of all the happy pictures that are painted around the experience of motherhood, this part is often left out. The impact of bearing and raising a child of rape on the mental health of women is a facet of motherhood which is not much discussed.
Having faced a lot of trouble finding psychological or emotional assistance when she needed it, Nicholle says, “It’s like: ‘Have that baby!’ OK, who’s gonna help after I have the baby? Can you help me mentally? Can I get some counselling? It just doesn’t happen”.
Children of Rape – The Forgotten Victims
Melanie Klein, one of the most influential theoreticians and practitioners of psychoanalysis, talks about the significance of a mother on the “inner-world” of the child. With her experience of working with children in psychoanalysis, she believes that a mother, as the primary nurturer, is the most important “object” in the infant’s life. In cases of forced pregnancies, the disconnect that a woman feels from the baby is not just traumatic for her. It is a source of never-ending suffering for the child too, who is conceived due to rape.
In his book “Far From The Tree”, Andrew Solomen talks about how difficult is the life of children who are conceived through rape. He refers to the rape survivors as victims of rape and their children being the “forgotten victims”.
Cases of forced motherhood are not well-documented, so getting the exact figures of how many women undergo forced pregnancies is challenging.
There may be several reasons behind this. For example, in cases of marital rape, the issue never comes to the fore to protect the family from any social embarrassment. The same is when a minor gets pregnant due to a sexual assault. The family hides the news to save the child from the trauma of being reported on insensitively by the media. Then, there are cases of sex workers becoming pregnant due to sexual assault. In the cases of sex workers, who cannot or are not allowed to define “force”, it is almost impossible to get the exact number of cases of forced motherhood among them.
The dominant mothering ideologies and myths like “motherhood comes naturally to women”, are missing when cases like these are studied and these myths and ideologies are debunked.
“I have lost everything and everyone blames me. I didn’t even leave my home for a month after the incident. I was tired of listening to neighbours’ taunts. I had stopped eating, just lay like a mad woman at home. It felt like I had lost my mind.” (Excerpt from an interview of a rape survivor as published in the Human Rights Watch report)
There are many more such unheard stories which never come to light. The road to justice for survivors of sexual assault is not easy. Adding to the pain, when rape results in pregnancies, coming to terms with an unexpected and unwanted conception is often impossible for them. These women who are unable to use their new-found prerogative of choice, are particularly vulnerable. They may fail to contemplate abortion due to various reasons, which may include societal, religious or health and hence, the emotional ownership of the pregnancy is missing in such cases.
A mother at ten
An abortion plea was made on behalf of a 10-year-old, who was 32 weeks pregnant, when her parents found out about the pregnancy in 2017. She was raped by her uncles repeatedly over a number of months. The Supreme Court of India rejected the plea, that was filed on her behalf, to allow her to get an abortion on the grounds that she is too far into her pregnancy.
The girl, in her statement to the police, said that she was raped several times in the past seven months by her uncle, who threatened to kill her if she said anything to her parents. The Indian and global media went into a frenzy after the Supreme Court passed its order. With abortion denied to her, the victim was forced to give birth to a baby girl through a C-section. Though both the girl and child survived the operation, the psychological trauma on both of them will be everlasting. The girl’s family said they didn’t want the baby and it was decided that the new born would be looked after the child welfare committee until it is put up for adoption.
Another similar story of a 14-year-old who became a mother as a result of rape, underwent a similar traumatising experience in 2016. The girl and her father are certain they do not want to raise the baby. The girl believes bringing up the child will never allow her trauma to fade. She had said previously, while filing the plea for the permission to abort, “I will not be in a position to raise the baby because of my finances and because the child will be a constant reminder of my trauma and shame”.
The humiliation and shame experienced by the victims of rape due to the subjugation and a total loss of control of one’s body becomes more traumatic when it results in an unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, victims’ feelings of contamination, of having been defiled or desecrated are often exacerbated by cultural judgments of raped women as dirty and impure, or as “damaged goods.”
Violence and abuse are experienced by these survivors at different levels. When they are denied the option of abortion or emergency contraception even after reporting it to the hospital or police, institutional violence at the community level comes into play.
An extreme example of institutional violence comes from Ireland. Deeply rooted in religious doctrine, Ireland’s eighth amendment (repealed recently) resulted in foetal life taking precedence over risks to the mother’s life. One of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, Ireland has, until 2018, abdicated itself from addressing the issues that arose due to the criminalisation of abortion.
The definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers in cases of rape survivors, as set by society, holds no ground as their sufferings are unimaginable. Moreover, in the cases where the woman continues with the pregnancy after an assault, she still often does not fulfil the criteria to be seen as an ‘acceptable’ mother.
An interesting aspect that one can notice is the contrasting views of motherhood ideologies in society. Patriarchal society presents motherhood as the ultimate route to fulfilment in a woman’s life, but the same society outcasts a woman when she conceives a rapist’s child. The physical and emotional fulfilment is completely missing in the cases of forced pregnancies.
Like other forms of violence against women, the only road to prevention is social change towards gender equality. A shift away from the culture and practice of male entitlement to women’s bodies is required.
The terms like creators, providers and nurturers are usually attached to a woman who treads on this new journey of motherhood, but no one talks about what happens to women who never chose to be a part of this journey, yet are forced through it. The word ‘motherhood’ has connotations of respect and power. But often, its meaning changes completely when it is forced on women due to a sexual assault. The topic of traumatic disconnect a woman feels, and the problems she faces while carrying and after giving birth due to a pregnancy as a result of rape deserves to be discussed more openly.