Domestic violence: Australia's silent victims

1 September 2010

Tony Abbott's recent announcement that he would crack down on gang warfare and knife crime if the Coalition wins the election reinforces the common perception that the worst danger of physical violence lurks down dark streets or in parks.

But the fact is, for most of us the horror exists within our homes, or with the people already in our lives. Of the women killed each year, 60 percent are at the hands of partners or ex-partners, and 12 percent by family members.

The common wisdom is that if a woman is in an abusive relationship, the best protective action she can take is to leave. But it is a hidden fact that a woman's risk to violence increases when she attempts to leave her partner, or if she is pregnant. This is the point at which domestic violence often begins, or otherwise existing violence and abuse intensifies.

The period post-separation is actually a particularly dangerous time for women, with research indicating that there is a significant increase of lethal and non-lethal violence during separation and after divorce. A 2008 study of 400 pregnant women in Queensland found that being separated from her partner did not mean a woman would avoid future abuse. In fact, for a large proportion of these women the violence increased.

There is also an identified association between pregnancy and increased risk violence by an intimate partner or ex-partner. Figures from the ABS Personal Safety Survey (2005) reveal almost 15 percent of pregnant women experience violence from a current partner or ex-partner, and for half of these women it will be the first time they have experienced physical violence from this person. The violence these women could be subjected to during pregnancy includes being pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, hit, kicked or punched. An abusive partner might attack these women's abdomens or breasts, sexually assault them, threaten them with a knife or gun, use a weapon against them or choke and strangle them.

ABS studies have established that a woman's experience of Intimate Partner Violence [IPV] - including physical, emotional, sexual and psychological harm - poses a serious threat to her own health as well as that of her unborn baby or newborn. A baby's repeated perinatal exposure to the stress hormone cortisol impacts negatively on its development in utero.

Furthermore, violence against a pregnant woman has been found, in various studies, to trigger low birth rates, premature births, mental health concerns including anxiety and depression, suicide, miscarriage and perinatal morbidity. The British Medical Association found that up to 20 percent of women suffered domestic violence during pregnancy, and the injuries they sustained included 'placental separation, foetal fractures, rupture of the uterus, liver or spleen and pre-term labour'. These are horrifying facts.

In addition, domestic violence against pregnant women has been found to trigger alcohol and other drug use by those women while carrying an unborn child. A 1996 study of US hospital records found that women who had experienced domestic violence were 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol and nine times more likely to abuse drugs. Drug and alcohol usage was also linked with the incidence of violence, possibly as a way for women to cope with the abuse.

Although Abbott's anti-crime policy, which proposes to crack down on violence in the public sphere (including gang violence), is important, there are two major reasons why government policy should also be addressing, and controlling, domestic violence. The first is the protection of public health and the second is managing the financial cost of this problem.

First, from a public health perspective, the ABS established in a recent study that domestic violence has been attributed to more health problems than other 'known risks to health such as cholesterol or illicit drugs'. These statistics alone should attract the attention of politicians if they are genuinely interested in attending to the health and social needs of their constituents.

Second, in terms of financial cost, the Australian Government's 2004 report The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy concluded that "domestic violence poses the greatest risk for disease and premature death for women 15 to 44-years-old and costs the country $8 billion each year". Approximately half of this cost is borne by the victims of intimate partner violence, with the balance being covered by government at all levels, employers and the perpetrators themselves.

These two sets of statistics, which demonstrate the negative impact domestic violence has on both the public health and economy of our country, makes domestic violence - whether it be against pregnant or non-pregnant women - an issue deserving of political attention, whether it be by the Coalition or Labor party.

In 2003-2004, there were almost 35,000 children whose mothers' were seeking sheltered accommodation to escape domestic violence, and research has found that there are many women and children who survive, escape and recover from domestic violence situations with very little support from formal services. More formal services provided by the government to assist these women and children would be welcomed.

A more concentrated policy effort to provide help, protection and rehabilitation to the victims of this hidden form of crime would also make it more likely for those who continue to suffer in silence to speak out and seek help.

If the government does not seek to take some additional measures to address this major public health issue, domestic abuse will continue to put pregnant mothers and their babies at risk of health problems - some of them fatal - both in the short and long term.

Catherine Robinson has been a social worker for seven years and has specialised in the field of domestic violence for the last six. She is currently completing her Master of Social Work at the University of Sydney.

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