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Mothers at most risk

Some mothers are more at risk

Some mothers are more at risk of being the victim of domestic violence than others. They include mothers with disabilities, pregnant mothers, young mothers, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander mothers, mothers from diverse communities and mothers living in rural and remote locations.

For more on working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are experiencing violence, see part 6 of this practice kit.

Mothers with disabilities

Mothers with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence. They are 40 percent more likely to be victims of domestic and family violence than other mothers, and more than 70 percent of mothers with disabilities have been victims of violent sexual encounters at some point in their lives (Frohmader, Dowse, & Didi, 2015).

It is also widely recognised that the actual rates of violence against mothers with disabilities is likely higher than the available data indicates. This is due to under-reporting and to systemic discrimination, which often dismisses or covers up disclosures of domestic and family violence from women with disabilities (Frohmader et al. 2015).

Fathers who use violence against mothers with disabilities take advantage of the additional power imbalance in the relationship.

Mothers with disabilities face discrimination both because of their gender and their disability. Prejudices and oppressive policies, actions and beliefs about both gender and ability interact, resulting in unique experiences for this group of mothers.

These can include:

  • institutional violence
  • forced or coerced contraception and sterilisation
  • forced or coerced psychiatric interventions
  • withholding of, or forced medication and medical exploitation
  • violation of privacy
  • deprivation of liberty
  • denial of essential care (Frawley, 2015).

“Perpetrators of violence may manipulate the impact of a person’s disability as a means of increasing power and control over the victim. For women in institutional settings whose autonomy has already been restricted, the impacts of these methods of manipulation are particularly acute, creating significant barriers to seeking help or to disclosing violence”

(Dowse et al, 2016). 

For more about working with mothers with disabilities:

Mothers who are pregnant or have recently had a child

Mothers are at an increased risk of experiencing domestic violence during pregnancy. If domestic violence already exists, it is likely to become more severe. Indigenous women, women aged between 18–24 years, and women with a disability are at a particularly significant risk of experiencing severe violence from their partners during pregnancy (Campo, 2015; Mitra, Manning, & Lu, 2012).

While researchers are just starting to see the long-term effects of domestic violence on babies in utero, outcomes like a low birth weight, being born premature and miscarriage have been linked to violence during pregnancy. Mothers may also be more at risk of post-natal depression, which can impact on the bond and attachment between a mother and her new baby.

Pregnancy and early parenthood presents an opportunity for health care professionals, particularly midwives and child health nurses, to assess and provide support to the mother. They may be the only service providers a pregnant women comes into contact with who are able to assess for abuse and take actions to create safety for the mother (Menezes Cooper 2013; Mitra et al. 2012).

The prevalence of domestic and family violence, and the severity of its impacts during pregnancy and early motherhood, suggests there are opportunities for early interventions, including referrals to domestic and family violence services, to be made by professionals working in antenatal, perinatal, maternal, and child health services.

As with all mothers, the best way to determine what support a pregnant woman needs is to ask her.

Domestic and family violence in pregnancy and early parenthood: overview and emerging interventions, Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), 2015

Further reading

Mothers living in rural and remote communities

The life-changing and debilitating effects of domestic and family violence are exacerbated for those mothers and children who live in rural or remote locations. Research indicates people living in rural and remote areas, particularly in Indigenous communities, experience greater levels of violence generally, and domestic violence specifically, than in other areas (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2017).

As is the case in urban areas, mothers experience domestic violence at higher rates than fathers, but for those in rural and remote areas, further challenges are experienced (Phillips & Vandenbroek, 2014). A publication by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (Campo & Tayton, 2015) identifies a range of compounding and exacerbating factors for mothers living in regional, remote and rural communities, including the following:

  • the lack of independent communication away from the father due to not having mobile telephone reception or internet access
  • the common presence of firearms
  • in a close-knit, small, conservative community, the family may be regarded as upstanding citizens who play an important role in the functioning of the community. They may hold positions of power or of social importance that make disclosure more difficult
  • fear of not being believed or of being ridiculed acts as a barrier to disclosure. Many feel ashamed and humiliated while others are fearful of embarrassing their families who also live in the area
  • a reluctance to contact and use local services due to a traditional ethic of self-sufficiency in these communities. It is possible that the local doctor or police officer is within the same social network, making disclosure extremely difficult
  • social isolation when living on farms and properties away from personal contact with others. Mothers who have moved with their partners to rural areas may be more isolated, having left behind connections to family, friends and other supports.

When a disclosure is made, further challenges exist in responding to safety concerns. These can include:

  • limited access to independent transport and lack of mobile telephone reception, significantly limiting their ability to escape. This can lead to families feeling trapped and isolated
  • familiarity with a family in the community may heighten the reluctance of people in authority, such as a doctor or police officer, to respond appropriately to secure safety
  • slower police response times due to the geographical area police need to service. This may affect their capacity to arrest and charge a perpetrator who resides in another town. If a victim has tried this avenue with no success, they risk putting themselves in a more dangerous position and may have no other options available
  • difficulty in accessing and enforcing legal protections, such as Legal Aid, legal representatives, and a timely police response to a breach of a domestic violence order.

People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have further difficulties in rural areas due to factors including language barriers, lack of familiarity with their surroundings, and limited opportunities to engage with face-to-face and telephone interpreters to assist them in accessing supports.

Further reading

Domestic and family violence in regional, rural and remote communities, Australian Institute of Family Studies (2018).

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