Abuse, neglect and gender-based violence in pregnancy

Gender-based violence seriously affects the physical, emotional and mental health of its victims, and  can be both chronic and acute in impact. For some women, abuse begins or escalates during pregnancy. This abuse can carry on after the birth, constituting a risk to both mother and child.

Gender-based violence and inequalities in pregnancy

Gender-based violence (GBV) during pregnancy is distressing for victims and contributes to serious and lasting health inequalities for mothers and their children.

Quick links

Need immediate help or advice?

This webpage is for workers and managers involved in caring for pregnant women.

If you require urgent assistance, please contact the free Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0800 027 1234 (24 hours).

Policy context

Action to eliminate gender-based violence is consistent with:

 

What are health inequalities?

For a discussion of health inequalities in pregnancy, please see Inequalities in antenatal care.

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What is gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence includes domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, stalking and harassment, and harmful traditional practices (e.g. female genital mutilation, ‘honour’ crimes and forced marriage).  It predominantly affects women, although men too can be victims of abuse.

Domestic abuse is defined as a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviours, including physical, sexual, financial, emotional or psychological abuse, or a combination of any of these factors.

What risks are associated with gender-based violence in pregnancy?

Violence during pregnancy presents serious risks to both the mother and the unborn child, including:

  • miscarriage
  • premature birth
  • uterine infection
  • low birth weight
  • injury to the unborn child
  • increased risk of maternal mental health problems, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression and postnatal depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide

In two in five domestic abuse cases, there is ongoing physical or sexual abuse of children by the same perpetrator, usually the father or father figure (What health workers need to know about gender-based violence: an overview (external link)).

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Identifying those at risk

Any woman can experience abuse. However, factors such as poverty, financial dependence, disability, homelessness or insecure immigration status can increase both women's vulnerability to abuse and affect their ability to prevent or escape victimisation.

The Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health's 2007 report 'Saving Mothers' Lives 2003: 2005 Chapter 13 (external link) noted that, in England and Wales, 40-60% of women experiencing domestic abuse are abused during pregnancy and that 30% of all domestic abuse cases start during pregnancy.

Age is also important. Evidence shows that young women between 15-24 years have a higher risk of abuse (Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships and Standing on my own two feet: disadvantaged teenagers, intimate partner violence and coercive control (external links)).

For more information and guidance relating to young mothers, please see Teenage Pregnancy and Inequalities.

It's also important to link with other professionals who may know more about the pregnant woman and her circumstances, e.g. carers, GPs, social workers, the police and voluntary sector agencies.

Indicators of gender-based violence in pregnancy include:

  • history of repeated miscarriages, terminations, still births or pre-term labour
  • non-attendance at antenatal appointments
  • attendance always with a partner who refuses to leave the room, is dominant or aggressive
  • multiple injuries at different stages of healing

For a fuller discussion, see p.175 of Saving Mothers' Lives 2003 – 2005 (external link)

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How can I help women experiencing gender-based violence?

Articles in this topic

Policy

Evidence

Professional support materials

  • External Resource

    A pathway for care for vulnerable families

    A suite of documents to support service delivery to vulnerable children and families (0-3). These have been developed as one of the national actions out of the ‘Early Years Framework’ ‘to develop integrated care pathways for antenatal, maternity and postnatal care’.

    • When was this published? 4/4/2011
  • External Resource

    Achieving Our Potential: A framework to tackle poverty and income inequality in Scotland [308KB]

    The Scottish government's strategy for combatting poverty and disadvantage.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    CHILDREN 1st website

    CHILDREN 1st offers a range of services to children and families, including counselling and mediation, befriending and trauma support.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    Gender-based violence action plan

    A 3 year action plan (2008 - 2011) to address gender based violence in Scotland.

    • When was this published? 1/9/2012
  • External Resource

    My Pregnancy My Choice

    Book for expectant parents with learning disabilities. This book is available free of charge to Early Years professionals in Scotland from NHS Health Scotland as an alternative to Ready Steady Baby! To order contact nhs.HealthScotland-EarlyYears@nhs.net.

    • When was this published? 5/27/2013
  • External Resource

    NICE Clinical guideline 89: Guidance on when to suspect child maltreatment [1.9MB]

    These guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)cover the alerting features in children and young people (under 18 years) of: physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect and fabricated or induced illness.

    • When was this published? 8/18/2010
  • External Resource

    Responding to domestic abuse: guide for health professionals [457KB]

    This handbook gives practical guidance to healthcare professionals on working with patients who may have experienced or are experiencing domestic abuse.

    • When was this published? 5/28/2013
  • External Resource

    Safer lives, changed lives: A shared approach to tackling violence against women in Scotland

    Provides a shared understanding and approach which will guide the work of all partners to tackle violence against women in Scotland.

    • When was this published? 1/9/2012
  • External Resource

    Scottish Women’s Aid

    Scottish Women's Aid tackles domestic abuse and works to end violence against women. It also runs training and events, and publishes material on domestic abuse and its effects on women and children.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    What health workers need to know about gender-based violence [4.1MB]

    This guide forms part of a package of resources developed by NHS Scotland for staff. It briefly explains the nature of gender-based violence and outlines how to respond.

    • When was this published? 8/18/2010
  • External Resource

    WithScotland

    WithScotland supports child protection policy, practice and research. It provides a range of inter-agency research, policy and practice to support professionals, groups and organisations who work in child care and protection.

    • When was this published? 5/27/2013

Information for the public

  • External Resource

    CHILDREN 1st website

    CHILDREN 1st offers a range of services to children and families, including counselling and mediation, befriending and trauma support.

    • When was this published? 8/17/2010
  • External Resource

    My Pregnancy My Choice

    Book for expectant parents with learning disabilities. This book is available free of charge to Early Years professionals in Scotland from NHS Health Scotland as an alternative to Ready Steady Baby! To order contact nhs.HealthScotland-EarlyYears@nhs.net.

    • When was this published? 5/27/2013
  • External Resource

    Ready Steady Baby!

    A website for the public providing information and advice through pregnancy and the baby's first days.

    • When was this published? 8/18/2010
  • External Resource

    Violence reduction posters and leaflets

    The Violence Reduction Unit has a range of posters available which are free to download and can be amended, leaflets targeting parents and children are available which details simple, everyday ways for parents to help to reduce the risk of violence in a child’s life.

    • When was this published? 5/23/2013