Abuse or family violence in pregnancy

Abuse or violence in pregnancy - COPE

Abuse or family violence is known to increase in pregnancy.  It is important to have an understanding of what this is, what you can do, and where you can go if you are experiencing abuse or violence in pregnancy.

What is family violence?

Family violence is also referred to as domestic violence or intimate partner violence.

Family violence occurs when a person uses aggression, threats, intimidation or force to control a partner or former partner, or other vulnerable family members, such as a child.  It is mainly committed by men, aims to cause fear, and can happen to anyone, regardless of socio-economic position, age, culture or religion.

Abuse can be verbal or physical, including sexual abuse.  It can include isolating someone from family and friends, withholding money or family resources, emotional abuse and intimidation, such as threats to harm you or others, damage to property, threats toward or actual harm of pets, and threats to commit suicide as a form of manipulation.

Family violence during pregnancy

Sadly, one in four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives.  Pregnancy is a time when violence toward women is known to increase.  For many, it is the first time that they will actually experience family violence.  Women who are already in an abusive relationship may hope that pregnancy and/or having a baby will reform their partner and that they violence and/or manipulation will stop; however, it is more likely to have the opposite effect, as rates of violence actually increase.

I thought, now that I am pregnant and having his baby, that it would all stop but, in fact, things only got worse and he became even more abusive and aggressive towards me.  I couldn’t understand why he would want to hurt our baby as well.

In pregnancy, emotional abuse may take several forms.  It may, for example, take the form of threats to report the woman to child welfare authorities as an unfit mother.  A partner may obstruct access to antenatal care.  They may refuse to support a woman financially during pregnancy.  Physical violence in pregnancy is more likely to target the woman’s abdomen, breasts or genitals.

Many women who experience family violence in pregnancy are reluctant to leave because they are financially vulnerable or they fear what their partner may do.

Health consequences of violence during pregnancy

Violence during pregnancy is harmful to both the woman and her unborn baby.  Research has shown that women reporting abuse during pregnancy had higher rates of intrauterine growth retardation, preterm labour and lower birth weight, as well as a higher risk of miscarriage.  The baby can also be damaged by physical assault.

Family violence has significant mental health impacts for women and is linked to antenatal depression, anxiety, and decreased attachment to the baby.  It is also associated with lower rates of breastfeeding.

What to do?

Are you, or do you think you may be experiencing family or partner violence during your pregnancy? If so, it is important for you, your growing baby and other children you may have to seek help.

Talking to a trusted health professional in confidence is a good first step.  This may be your GP, your obstetrician or your midwife.  There are also dedicated helplines available to support you such as 1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732.

Getting help

Many health services, such as maternity hospitals, will have access to social workers and counsellors. They can inform you of your rights, and help you to access protection and support. They can also provide you with strategies to manage the stress you are experiencing.

It can be difficult to accept that your partner has been abusive. Many women are reluctant to seek help due to feelings of shame.  However, if your partner has been violent, even if he expresses remorse and you may both want to believe that he will change, it is still likely that abuse and violence will very often occur again.

There are a number of agencies that are specialised in assisting women who are in violent intimate relationships. Your health professional can help you link in with them.  These services can provide assistance to make decisions, help you to learn about your rights, entitlements and options. They can also advocate for you within the police or justice systems.

Remember that it is illegal for anyone to assault another person. This is regardless of whether they are living together or are married.