OZY Investigation: Breaking the Silence on Croatia’s Rising ‘Womb Violence’

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Why you should care

Croatian women are increasingly coming forward with stories of violence on the surgeon's table.

Croatian parliamentarian Ivana Ninčević–Lesandrić was struggling with the trauma of a first-trimester miscarriage, and nothing could’ve prepared her for what came next. At the hospital, she was tied to a table as a surgeon performed curettage to scrape out tissue from her uterus — all without administering anesthesia. “Those were the 30 most painful minutes of my life,” she recalls. “And I can recall every second of it.”

It’s an experience that’s all too familiar to an increasing number of Croatian women. A confluence of rising conservatism in Croatia and an exodus of doctors — including many anesthesiologists — is turning the operating table into a theater of violence against women undergoing procedures related to childbirth. But women are fighting back, shining a light on what they’re being forced to endure, and hoping it becomes impossible for authorities to ignore.

Since 2013, more than 620 doctors have left the country of 4 million people. The country, 85 percent Catholic, has swung toward increasing religiosity since the collapse of Yugoslavia and communism, says Branka Mrzić Jagatić, program coordinator at RODA, an advocacy organization led by parents and focused on reproductive rights. Religion today has a “big influence” on politicians, she says.

It was like [the] Croatian #MeToo movement, but the hashtag was #BreakTheSilence.

Valerija Bebek, Croatian journalist who has reported on the crisis.

While abortion is legal, many doctors use a conscientious objection exemption in the rules to turn women away, say experts. More and more Croatian women are crossing the border into Brežice, Slovenia, for safe access to abortion. There were 25 abortions at the border hospital in the first three months of 2019, compared to 54 in all of 2018. Croatia has among the lowest abortion rates in Europe, and patriarchy is a factor too, say experts.  

“Patriarchy is the sea, and religion is the boat — you sail on it,” says Valerija Bebek, a Croatian journalist for 100Posto.

Women are challenging that, and Ninčević–Lesandrić has been central to those efforts. In October 2018, she stood up in Parliament and narrated her experience before the country’s health minister, Milan Kujundžić — a trained physician himself. “I wanted everyone to know that he know it,” she says. Kujundžić dismissed her testimony. “This is not how it’s done in Croatian hospitals,” he responded. But Ninčević–Lesandrić wasn’t done. “The minister is not telling the truth,” she shot back in Parliament, her voice level. “You said it’s not done this way, but it is. Because I experienced it.”

The speaker of the Parliament suggested Ninčević–Lesandrić’s detailed testimony had put him in an “uncomfortable” position. But the lawmaker’s words rang true for women across Croatia. That night, her social media feed was flooded with supporting messages. “It was like [the] Croatian #MeToo movement, but the hashtag was #BreakTheSilence,” says Bebek.

RODA issued a call for other Croatian women to share similar stories. Within two days, they had more than 400 testimonies, says Mrzić Jagatić, some of them anonymous. With the permission of those who had written in, RODA members took to the streets, reading out the testimonies in public to draw attention to the issue.

It’s unclear just how much the campaign will change the mindset of Croatia’s government, its medical fraternity and men more broadly, but the growing instances of obstetric violence are beginning to embarrass the country globally. Dubravka Šimonović, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on violence against women, spoke about the crisis during a session at the General Assembly last October, while highlighting that it’s a global phenomenon.

And back in Croatia, Ninčević–Lesandrić’s testimony and the subsequent campaign that has seen Croatian women speak out about their experiences are empowering many among them to question the violence they face. “Until yesterday, I thought that’s how it’s supposed to be, and that labor and stitching hurt, and that simply, you must endure it,” says one of the notes RODA has received since the movement took off. “Thank you for opening our eyes.”

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