It is shocking that one in three women around the world experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Research suggests that these women are more than twice as likely to have an abortion and almost twice as likely to experience depression compared to women who have not experienced partner violence.
The media has an immense power to raise the profile of domestic abuse on a scale that healthcare professionals have been unable to achieve; breaking the taboo by talking about issues openly. I was very impressed and moved by a recent storyline on The Archers, a BBC Radio 4 programme. It managed to effectively portray the stark reality of systematic violence, whilst showing women that help and support is available. Given my experience in women's healthcare, I can confirm that Helen Archer's story was a very accurate portrayal. I know the team behind the programme spent time with Women's Aid (a charity which aims to end domestic violence against women and children) and other charities to learn about women's experiences to ensure that the relationship dynamics were conveyed as realistically as possible.
Domestic violence is a complex problem. While it is often physical or sexual, it can include a range of non-physical, but no less damaging, abuse such as psychological, financial or emotional. Domestic violence, especially during pregnancy, is an issue we should all address, and as doctors we must do what we can to break this cycle of abuse.
Research suggests that less than 40% of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort. Among those that do, most look to family and friends, and very few seek out services such as the police or health providers. I believe that all healthcare professionals should receive training to recognise and respond to domestic violence; similar to mandatory training on child protection. We are often the first point of contact for women suffering from domestic violence, so it is important that we know how to respond. If healthcare providers lacks the training and skills to recognise and deal with the patient, it is unlikely that the woman will approach another healthcare provider for help.
This guide, Gender-based domestic violence: How can I help my patients?, explains the importance of creating a safe and welcoming environment for women, and building up rapport and trust. Patients are more likely to speak up if they believe their healthcare professional cares for and believes them. The guide also explains what red flags to look out for, such as multiple attendances for different problems, how healthcare professionals should trust their instincts, and what to do when a patient says they're being abused.
We have a duty to speak out on behalf of these women, so I am calling on all healthcare professionals around the world to get behind the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. It runs from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25 November) to Human Rights Day (10 December).
This is a real opportunity to help eliminate all forms of violence against women, so let's stand together as champions for women's human rights.
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