On Wednesday, March 5th, domestic violence advocates from across California gathered in front of the Assembly Select Committee on Domestic Violence at the State Capitol in Sacramento to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of how to ensure safety for survivors of domestic violence. W.O.M.A.N., Inc.’s Community Liaison Manager, Mariya Taher, presented on pregnancy and domestic violence and the increased risk and barriers to escaping a violent relationship. Her testimony is written below.
Other presenters included, Krista Niemczyk – California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, Colsaria Henderson – Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence, Marci Fukuroda, – Rainbow Services, Lynda Smallenberger – Kene Me-Wu American Indian DV/SA Program, Melodie Kruspodin – Peace Over Violence.
Pregnancy and Domestic Violence: Increased Risk & Barriers to Escaping Abuse
Good morning and thank you for hearing my testimony today. My name is Mariya Taher and I am the Community Liaison Manager with Women Organized to Make Abuse Nonexistent, otherwise known as W.O.M.A.N., Inc. W.O.M.A.N., Inc. is a community-based agency in San Francisco that is dedicated to empowering domestic violence survivors to create lives free of violence. Our agency has been working with survivors, primarily including low-income, immigrant women since 1978. For many of the women our agency works with, financial dependence often forces women to remain in abusive relationships, and during pregnancy that financial dependence increases. In the past two years, W.O.M.A.N., Inc. has received over 2000 calls on our crisis line from women who have reported financial abuse. Additionally, the National Survey of DV Shelters indicated that over 74% of women stayed with an abusive partner longer because of financial concerns.
The abuse of pregnant women crosses all socio-economic and cultural lines. In some cases, abusers intentionally impregnate their partners to exploit their financial control and assert their power. According to the World Health Organization, “women who live with violent partners have a difficult time protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancy or disease. Violence can lead directly to unwanted pregnancy through coerced sex, or else indirectly by interfering with a woman’s ability to use contraceptives, including condoms.” An abuser may combine financial abuse and reproductive and/or sexual abuse to keep a woman from leaving the relationship.[i]
Additionally, pregnant women with inadequate financial support are less able to afford healthy diets, preventing them from getting the nutrients necessary for proper fetal development. This is another way that pregnancy and financial challenges intersect to create barriers to safety for survivors. Often domestic violence begins or escalates in severity during pregnancy. The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) reports that domestic violence is more common than any other health problem among women during pregnancy. In fact, just last week I was taking calls on our agency’s 24hour domestic violence crisis line, and received back-to-back calls from women who told me about how their abuser increased the violence toward them when they were pregnant.
Women who experience multiple stressful situations during pregnancy, such as homelessness, hunger, violence, and deep poverty, are more likely to have premature and low birth weight babies, and are at increased risk of mother and infant mortality. The cost of medical care for pre-term births is much higher than for full-term births, and the human costs of infant mortality immeasurable. Children whose birth mothers experience the harmful stressor of deep poverty are more likely to suffer poor health and less likely to succeed academically. Domestic violence causes more health problems among pregnant women than any other single cause. Without financial assistance, low-income pregnant women have few alternatives and are more likely to endure abuse that will cause long and short-term harm to both themselves and their unborn fetus.
Because of the intersection of these multiple challenges, domestic violence advocates, family planning and other reproductive health care providers have a particular responsibility to help survivors because of how large an impact abuse has on women’s reproductive health and sexual well-being. Additionally, reproductive health care providers are strategically placed to help identify victims of violence and connect them with other community support services. Thus, providers can reassure women that violence is unacceptable and that no woman deserves to be beaten, sexually abused, or made to suffer emotionally. As one survivor once said, “Compassion is going to open up the door. And when we feel safe and are able to trust, that makes a lot of difference.”[ii]
Compassion is what allowed Alma, a domestic violence survivor to reach out to W.O.M.A.N., Inc. and break free from violent relationship after years of suffering emotional, physical, sexual, and financial abuse. When Alma and her husband arrived to the U.S. from Mexico, they were having many conflicts and unhealthy arguments. During and after the birth of their first child, the abuse escalated to physical abuse. Alma realized that this physical and emotional abuse was affecting not only her but also her daughter who was witnessing the violence, and she made her first attempt to leave. Yet, leaving an abusive relationship is challenging and before Alma would find the opportunity to permanently leave this relationship, she would endure the birth of her second child, a move to San Francisco, and much more emotional and physical violence.
When that time came, she sought out W.O.M.A.N., Inc. and began receiving therapy and case management services. W.O.M.A.N., Inc. also helped Alma find therapy for both her children and she began participating in Spanish support groups and her kids participated in Children’s group. With our agency’s support, Alma prepared her application for a U-Visa to receive a work permit and legal status. With our case manager, she filled out job applications, and found a safer home where she and her family could start their new life. She was also able to apply for public benefits such as CalFresh, MediCal, and cash assistance, and obtain a Mexican passport at no cost for herself and her daughter.
Her personal story showcases how difficult it can be for a survivor to leave an abusive relationship, especially when pregnancy is involved, and the financial considerations that come into play. Her story also demonstrates how important it is to have supportive services, such as W.O.M.A.N., Inc. that can help address the needs of these women and their children.
Thank you for your time.
 Bohn, D.K., “Domestic Violence and Pregnancy. Implication for Practice.” Journal of Nurse Midwifery 1990 Mar-Apr; 35(2):86-98.
[i] “Violence By Intimate Partners,” World Health Organization, ww.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/global_campaign/en/chap4.pdf
[ii] Heise, L., Ellsberg, M. and Gottemoeller, M. Ending Violence Against Women. Population Reports, Series L, No. 11. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Population Information Program, December 1999.