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Women with disability experiencing Domestic and Family Violence

Women with disability experiencing Domestic and Family Violence

Babies of pregnant women who experience family violence are more likely to be stillborn, premature or significantly growth restricted. Their mothers comparably experience an increased incidence of miscarriage, reduced infant bonding, and perinatal anxiety and depression1. Domestic and family violence trauma has significant long-term effects for those individuals experiencing it, as well as society.

Domestic and Family Violence in Australia

In Australia, domestic and family violence is also known as domestic violence or intimate partner violence(IPV)1. The perpetrator of violence may be an intimate partner of the woman but may also be another family member or carer. This article will use the term domestic and family violence (DFV) or family violence as it includes the wider family and circumstances within which it occurs.

Nationally, 17-25% of women experience DFV. Variations in prevalence occur as definitions of DFV differ, based on the type of perpetrator and the type of violence experienced – whether physical, emotional, sexual. Regardless of these definitions, approximately 1 in 3 women globally experience DFV at some point in their lives2.

Family Violence and Women with disability

For women with disability, this is increased. Research in the United Kingdom, has shown DFV is doubled for women with disability with 50% of WWD experiencing it.3 4 For women with intellectual disability, the rate of DFV increases to 70%5. Many women with disability may not recognise their family violence circumstances. They are likely to only consider themselves living with DFV when experiencing physical or sexual violence. They may not consider emotional violence, or control over social relationships or financial control as their DFV6. Unless women recognise they are experiencing DFV, it is unlikely that they will change their situation.

Being turned away from Women’s shelters

Leaving a family violence situation can be difficult for many women. With the added challenge of their disability, this difficulty increases as they rely on others for assistance to leave. When the woman’s carer may be the perpetrator of violence, or has total control of her finances, getting help may be insurmountable. For women with disability that do manage to leave, additional challenges arise. Research in Queensland found that women with intellectual disability who went to women’s shelters were sometimes turned away as staff were worried that the women would reveal the shelter location or were seen as clients with too many complexities5. Until DFV support services recognise these additional challenges for women with disabilities, and ensure appropriate services and supports to meet their needs, how will it change?

Pregnancy and family violence

The event of becoming pregnant is recognised as a significant contributor to the first episode of DFV that a woman experiences7. Consequently, in Australia all women are screened in pregnancy for this. Although not all women may disclose violence initially, ongoing antenatal visits provide further opportunities for them to disclose and for supports to be organised before the baby is born.

Domestic and family violence contributes significantly to infants and children being removed from their parents’ care. This is especially so for women with intellectual disability. Decreased insight into understanding what family violence is, and an inability to be protective are substantial contributors. Dr Michelle McCarthy, a leading researcher in the area of intellectual disability in the UK, completed a project with a group of women with intellectual disability. Here, the issues for women with intellectual disability around family violence are highlighted. Whilst this video refers to services and supports within the UK, the problems for women with intellectual disability in Australia are similar and can be used for both women with disability programs and staff training.


  1. Hooker L, Kaspiew R, Taft A. Domestic an family violence and parenting: Mixed methods insights into impact and support needs: State of knowledge paper. Sydney; 2016.
  2. World Health Organisation (WHO). Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Geneva: WHO Press; 2013.
  3. Dowse L, Soldatic K, Spangaro J, van Toorn G. Mind the gap: the extent of violence against women with disabilities in Australia. Australian Journal of Social Issues (Australian Social Policy Association). 2016;51(3):341-59.
  4. Bradbury-Jones C, Breckenridge JP, Devaney J, Kroll T, Lazenbatt A, Taylor J. Disabled women’s experences of accessing and utilising maternity services when they are affected by domestic abuse: a critical incident technique study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2015;15:181-91.
  5. Eastley T. Domestic violence victims with intellectual disability often turned away or not investigated [Internet]: Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)2016. Podcast. Available from:
  6. Breckenridge JP, Devaney J, Kroll T, Lazenbatt A, Taylor J, Bradbury-Jones C. Access and utilisation of maternity care for disabled women who experience domestic abuse – a systematic review. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2014;14(234):234-46.
  7. Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council. Clinical Practice Guidelines: Antenatal Care – Module 1. In: Ageing AGDoHa, editor. Canberra2012. 

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