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The social factors which predict future violence in the home

25 August 2005

The key signs which mark out a pregnant woman as being at greatest risk of domestic violence both during pregnancy and up to 3 years later have been published in a new report.

The key signs which mark out a pregnant woman as being at greatest risk of domestic violence both during pregnancy and up to 3 years later have been published in a new report.

Women who live in the most social adversity are up to 14 times more likely to be victims when their child is three years old, according to the new study.

The findings, published by the Children of the 90s project at the University of Bristol, could form the basis of a new method of predicting – and so preventing – violence in the home.

Psychologists asked women who were four months pregnant whether they were subject to physical or emotional cruelty from their husband or partner. The same 7,500 women were followed for the next three years.

The report’s author Dr Erica Bowen says: “Domestic violence can be considered as everything from emotional and verbal abuse through threats and intimidation to actual physical and sexual assaults. It affects one in three women during their lifetime.

“We know that domestic violence can have long term health consequences. Because it is widely acknowledged as such an important public health issue, the Department of Health has recommended routine screening of women to identify victims.”

It is known that women in their prime child-bearing age are at highest risk. But until now there has been some debate about the best time to screen women and whether a policy of interviewing women at ante-natal clinics would be effective.

Previous research has shown that victims of domestic violence are typically less affluent, younger, single, poorly educated and experience high levels of family-based stress. The Bristol study also took into account housing facilities, family size, mother’s social network, history of depression or anxiety and criminality. No-one has ever examined the effect of all the different social disadvantages together.

During pregnancy 1 per cent of the women reported some physical violence and 4.8 per cent said they’d been subjected to emotional cruelty.

Almost three years after their babies were born, 2.9 per cent said they had suffered physical violence in the last few months. 10.8 per cent reported emotional cruelty.

Importantly, there was a consistent link between the extent of social adversity during pregnancy and the level of physical violence three years later. Women coping with one social adversity were twice as likely to be victims. Women living with five adversities were 14 times more likely to report physical violence.

Dr Bowen says: “If anything in this study we have under-estimated true rates of domestic violence, but there are important implications here for midwives and those in the ante-natal services.

“While pregnancy itself appears in this study at least, to be a period of comparatively low risk, it is clear from these data that levels of social adversity at that time are important for predicting future victimisation. This is not to say that family adversity directly causes victimisation, but that it is indicative of the family context within which violence may occur.

“It isn’t necessarily one single disadvantage that is important but the combined effect of several family risk factors that increase the likelihood of current or future violence.

“This suggests that screening during pregnancy is important and it should include a variety of factors to do with social, individual and relationship matters.

“This screening should include a checklist of adversities that are often missing or poorly completed in antenatal records – and help identify those women who are at high risk for future domestic violence.”


Academic paper reference

Domestic violence risk during and after pregnancy: Findings from a British longitudinal study. Erica Bowen, Jon Heron, Andrea Waylen, Dieter Wolke and the ALSPAC study team. British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-0528.2005.00653.x


ALSPAC The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as Children of the 90s) is a unique ongoing research project based in the University of Bristol. It enrolled 14,000 mothers during pregnancy in 1991-2 and has followed most of the children and parents in minute detail ever since.


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