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New research explores the impact of gendered violence on children’s health
The incidence and impact of domestic violence on women is an area that has been reasonably well researched, but the impact of this violence on children’s health is a subject that has not received much attention. Dr Santosh Jatrana, Associate Professor at Swinburne University and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Population Research, was struck by this gap in the literature.
Presenting the results of her findings, after extensive study, at an Australia India Institute event titled “Maternal Exposure to intimate partner violence and child health in India: Evidence of an association from NFHS-3”, Dr Jatrana spoke about how she was first inspired to investigate this gap.
“I trained as a demographer and all my life I have worked in medical schools with doctors and public health professionals,” she explained. “It was while working with the impact of passive smoking on children’s health that I considered the impact on children of violence against their mothers.”
Dr Jatrana looked for research in the area and didn’t find much. “Given the importance of domestic violence, you would expect a lot of literature on the relationship between violence and child health, but I was surprised that there was very little.” She found only two studies in India on this association, and set about rectifying the situation.
Using data on married women collected by the third National Family Health Survey in India (2005-2006), Dr Jatrana studied the association between women’s exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) and child health. IPV included exposure to physical, emotional and sexual violence, and child health was measured using standard measures of height for age, weight for height and weight for age. Across 109,041 households, 124,385 women aged 15-49, and 19,612 children between the ages of 12 and 35 months, were surveyed across India.
Given the sensitive nature of IPV, and the sometimes nuanced ways it manifests itself, the survey explained acts of IPV instead of simply asking women if they had experienced violence.
“Women in developing countries are socialised to accept, tolerate and even justify and rationalise violence,” Dr Jatrana explained. “A lot of effort went into asking objective questions in the survey, and the safety of both respondents and interviewers was kept in mind.”
The survey found that overall, 57% of women had experienced either physical, sexual or emotional violence, with 28% of them having had experienced it in the last 12 months. Of violent experiences over the past 12 months, 23.26% were experiences of physical violence, 11.11% experiences of emotional violence, and 7.43% experiences of sexual violence. The most common acts of physical violence were slapping followed by kicking and twisting of the arm.
Analysis of the data showed a clear and significant impact of violence on the health of the child. Children whose mothers have experienced either physical, emotional and sexual violence in the last 12 months were 16% more likely to be stunted, and 9% more likely to be underweight.
Stunted growth is a reduced rate of growth in human development, leading to lower body mass, height and other serious health implications. Children of mothers who have ever experienced violence are almost 58% more likely to be stunted than the children of women who have never experienced violence. The link is clear and significant.
Dr Jatrana’s assessment of the link between maternal violence and child health is twofold: one, the psychological stress that the mother faces impacts stress levels in children; and two, the abuser often withholds food from the child. Both of these impact child health.
Considering India has the highest rate of child malnutrition in the world, the association between maternal violence and child health is an area of critical concern. However, Dr Jatrana cautions that this is not a uniquely Indian problem, or a problem that exclusively affects developing countries.
“Violence is an issue both in developing and developed countries,” she said. “Women are disproportionately represented in incidents of violence, and the burden that they and society bear is the negative impact on women’s health, autonomy, and productivity.”
We now add to that terrible and unacceptable toll its impact on children’s health.