During the pandemic, pregnant women were three to four times more likely to experience intimate partner violence than women who weren't pregnant. Here, we explore how pregnancy can become a significant risk factor for abuse.
When Geraldine Bilston met her ex-partner, Ted*, she was swept off her feet. She fell in love fast and trusted him quickly. Their relationship was intense and exciting and, in a way, he made her feel safe.
As time passed, though, things changed. Ted became more and more controlling. He grew jealous of her male colleagues. He would constantly check her phone. He would come home from work and yell if the house was untidy.
If it was spotless, he would try to find something out of place. It was an outlet for an outburst, a reason to justify the abuse.
Then Geraldine fell pregnant and the controlling behaviour gave way to the physical. "It wasn't like I got beat up every night but he would push me or shove me," she said. "There was a time when he pushed me and I fell down the stairs. There was a time when he had pushed me up against the wall."
Falling pregnant is one of the great miracles of the human experience - a time that is meant to be filled with pure love and joy - but it can be an incredibly deadly time for victims of abuse.
Pregnancy is a significant risk factor for women, like Geraldine, who are already in abusive relationships and researchers have identified the cause behind this escalation in abuse.
A UK study of domestic violence and pregnancy from 2006 found that pregnancy is a time of "greater autonomy over one's body, self-awareness and independence" and that abusive men may decide to use violence to regain control in a relationship where they feel like they are no longer the centre of attention.
Research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2012 Personal Safety Survey also revealed that, for 25 percent of women who had experienced violence during pregnancy, it was the first time their partner had been violent.
Domestic violence is, in fact, the leading cause of death among pregnant women, both in Australia and internationally. Young women (aged between 18 and 24 years), women with a disability, and Indigenous women are also at increased risk of severe violence from their partner during pregnancy.
During the pandemic, we saw these alarming statistics confirmed. In 2020, the Australian Institute of Criminology's Dr. Hayley Boxall published a paper on women's experiences of domestic violence during the coronavirus crisis.
"Women who were pregnant were somewhere between three and four times more likely to experience physical and sexual violence compared to women who were not pregnant in the last three months," Dr. Boxall said. "Physical violence and intimate partner violence in general is associated with really negative pregnancy outcomes for women, including things like stillbirth, low birth weight for babies, and longer-term physical and health issues for their children."
Geraldine is now a consultant in the domestic and family violence sector, having left and survived a relationship that took so much from her.
Today, she credits motherhood as the thing that finally pushed her to leave. When her daughter was two and a half years old, Ted* came home one night and "flew off the handle". Geraldine stood up to him, but he picked her up and threw her through the door.
"I hit the wall and I scrambled up and, as I was getting up, I saw my daughter run towards the bathroom so I took off after her," said Geraldine. "When I got in there, she was crouched in an empty bath hiding. And as I looked at her I knew that what I had been going through was manageable for me, but this was not okay [for her].
And seeing her like that, it just kicked something in me where I was like, 'No, I have to get out'."
Geraldine is one of 10 brave Australians speaking candidly about abuse they've endured at the hands of a current or former partner. There's No Place Like Home is a compelling new podcast by Future Women that puts survivors at the centre of the story.
If you or anyone you know has experienced domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service. You can also contact Lifeline (13 11 14).
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