By Rachael Wong
New research from the University of South Australia and the University of Melbourne has highlighted the crucial role that obstetric health practitioners play in a woman’s decision to stay in or leave an abusive relationship.
The study found that doctors, midwives, nurses and social workers were in a unique position to offer empathy, support and information to women in abusive relationships during pregnancy, birth and post-delivery.
In light of the new research and the rise in domestic violence during COVID-19, health experts are calling for obstetric health practitioners to receive compulsory training to help recognise signs of coercive control and domestic violence.
“Coercive control is a form of psychological entrapment, achieved through behaviour that victimises women through acts, words and gestures designed to isolate, frighten and demean them,” University of South Australia researcher Dr Fiona Buchanan says.
“Disturbingly, women with children are three times more likely to experience domestic violence than women without children and, perhaps worse, is that the frequency and severity of domestic violence is twice as high for women during pregnancy.”
University of Melbourne co-researcher Professor Cathy Humphreys says health professionals hold a position of trust that enables them to offer first-line support.
She says there are key behaviours that indicate psychological abuse and control. These include overbearing or disinterested behaviour during pregnancy, limiting a woman’s contact with doctors, refusing to come to scans, making a scene when a visit is running late, or a lack of support or self-focus by partners.
“All these acts exemplify ways that partners shame and demean women, and all are important warning signals for health practitioners to look out for.”
Professor Humphreys says the way health practitioners respond is critical, as it either helps women to identify their partners’ behaviours as abusive, or it exacerbates their feelings of isolation and helplessness.
“We must find ways to ensure that all obstetric health practitioners can identify coercive control, so that we can help women to act and protect themselves and their children from further abuse.
“There’s no excuse for abuse and it’s everyone’s responsibility to prevent it.”
Women’s Health Week is running from September 7 to 11.
Rachael Wong is the CEO of Women’s Forum Australia