Sanctuary for the Abused
Monday, October 17, 2016
The Health Effects of Domestic Violence
The effects of violence on a victim's health are severe. In addition to the immediate injuries from the assault, battered women may suffer from chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, psychosomatic symptoms, and eating problems. Although psychological abuse is often considered less severe than physical violence, health care providers and advocates around the world are increasingly recognizing that all forms of domestic violence can have devastating physical and emotional health effects. Domestic violence is associated with mental health problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
Women who are abused suffer an increased risk of unplanned or early pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. As trauma victims, they are also at an increased risk of substance abuse. According to a U.S. study, women who experience intimate partner abuse are three times more likely to have gynecological problems than non-abused women. From Violence Against Women: Effects on Reproductive Health, Outlook, vol. 20, no. 1 (September 2002).
Women are particularly vulnerable to attacks when pregnant, and thus may more often experience medical difficulties in their pregnancies. Recent research has called for increased study of pregnancy associated deaths. "Pregnancy associated deaths" are "deaths occurring to women who have been pregnant within the previous year." A study conducted by researchers in Maryland of 247 pregnancy associated deaths found that the leading cause of death was homicide. The researchers have called for "enhanced surveillance" of pregnancy associated deaths and additional research focusing more specifically on the role of domestic violence. From Nancy K.D. Lemon, Health Watch, in Domestic Violence Report, vol. 8, no. 5, 69, 69 (June/July 2003) (citing Isabelle L. Horon & Diana Cheng, Enhanced Surveillance for Pregnancy-Associated Mortality—Maryland, 1993-1998, in JAMA vol. 285, no. 11, 1455 (21 March 2001)).
Other studies have shown that there are significant obstetric risk factors associated with domestic violence. Abused women are more likely to have a history of sexually transmitted disease infections, vaginal and cervical infections, kidney infections and bleeding during pregnancy, all of which are risk factors for pregnant women. Abused women are more likely to delay prenatal care and are less likely to receive antenatal care. In fact, "[i]ntimate partner abuse during pregnancy may be a more significant risk factor for pregnancy complications than other conditions for which pregnant women are routinely screened, such as hypertension and diabetes." From Violence Against Women: Effects on Reproductive Health, Outlook, vol. 20, no. 1 (September 2002).
As discussed in more detail in the section on marital rape, in many countries, marriage is believed to grant men unconditional sexual access to their wives, and to permit the use of violence if their wives do not comply. Women's lack of sexual autonomy in these situations puts them at risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Recent research in Nicaragua, for example, suggests that domestic abuse increases the likelihood that women will have many children and found that abused women were twice as likely to have four or more children. From Ending Violence Against Women, in Population Reports, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 1999).
Domestic violence can be fatal; women are both intentionally murdered by their partners and lose their life as a result of injuries inflicted by them. In particular, recent studies in the United States have focused on choking or strangulation, a tactic often used by batterers. Because choking or strangulation rarely leaves vivid external physical marks, police may not recognize the victim's need for medical assistance or the seriousness of the violence. Injuries resulting from choking or strangulation can often be lethal; such injuries "may appear mild initially but they can kill the victim within 36 hours." From When Abusers Choke Their Victims, Violence Against Women 22-5 (Joan Zorza ed., 2002).
In addition to the danger of death from injury or intentional homicides, research also indicates that women who are abused may be more likely to commit suicide. The Family Violence Prevention Fund, reporting on a 1995 study, stated that 29% of all women in the United States who attempted suicide were battered. UNICEF reports that a "close correlation between domestic violence and suicide has been established based on studies in the United States, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Peru, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Suicide is 12 times as likely to have been attempted by a woman who has been abused than by one who has not." From UNICEF, Domestic Violence Against Women and Girls, 6 Innocenti Digest 1, 4 (2000).
The World Health Organization's Factsheet and Violence Against Women: Health Consequences detail the health consequences of violence against women around the world. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the Family Violence Prevention Fund provides an excellent overview of the health effects of domestic violence on women and children.
For a list of research and reports on the health effects of domestic violence, click here.