Background: Disrespect and abuse (D&A) of women in health facilities continues to be a prevailing public health issue in many countries. Studies have reported significantly high prevalence of D&A among women during pregnancy and childbirth in Nigeria, but little is known about women's perceptions and experiences of D&A during maternity care in the country. The aim of this study was to explore: 1) how women perceived their experiences of D&A during pregnancy, childbirth, and in the postnatal period in Benue State, Nigeria; and 2) how women viewed the impact of D&A on the future use of health facilities for maternity care.
Method: Five focus group discussions with a sample of 32 women were conducted as part of a qualitative phenomenological study. All the women received maternity care in health facilities in Benue State, Nigeria and had experienced at least one incident of disrespect and abuse. Audio-recorded discussions were transcribed and analysed using a six-stage thematic analysis using NVivo11.
Results: The participants perceived incidents such as being shouted at and the use of abusive language as a common practice. Women described these incidents as devaluing and dehumanising to their sense of dignity. Some women perceived that professionals did not intend to cause harm by such behaviours. Emerged themes included: (1) 'normative' practice; (2) dehumanisation of women; (3) 'no harm intended' and (4) intentions about the use of maternity services in future. The women highlighted the importance of accessing health facilities for safe childbirth and expressed that the experiences of D&A may not impact their intended use of health facilities. However, the accounts reflected their perceptions about the inherent lack of choice and an underlying sense of helplessness.
Conclusion: Incidents of D&A that were perceived as commonplace carry substantial implications for the provision of respectful maternity care in Nigeria and other similar settings. As a country with one of the highest rates of maternal deaths, the findings point to the need for policy and practice to address the issue urgently through implementing preventive measures, including empowering women to reinforce their right to be treated with dignity and respect, and sensitising health care professionals.
Keywords: Disrespect and abuse; Health facilities; Maternity care; Nigeria.