A new study from the University of Bristol and the NSPCC represents the first UK research to focus on disadvantaged young people’s experiences of violence and control in their intimate relationships. The report gives some depressing statistics about pregnant young women and young mothers’ increased exposure to domestic violence. Two thirds of those interviewed had experienced physical violence in at least one of their relationships and nearly all reported some form of controlling behaviours from their partners.
As the report points out, ‘an increased risk of domestic violence, in both pregnancy and after birth, is something universally experienced by women, irrespective of age or disadvantage. However, a young mother’s age, alongside the social stigma associated with teenage pregnancy, profoundly impacts on young women’s ability to protect both themselves and their children’.
The Include study mentioned in the report found that ‘young women are less likely to access services than other women and have fewer resources to help them leave relationships’. Some young mothers were reluctant to leave their partner and be seen as fitting into the stereotype of a ‘young single mum’. Another concern, which we’ve also heard anecdotally from professionals working with young people is that young mothers are afraid to report domestic violence for the fear that their child(ren) may be taken away from them.
Beyond the physical violence done to women during or post-pregnancy there is research to suggest that some young women are also victims of ‘reproductive coercion’. That is to say, their ability to control the sex they have, the contraception they use or the reproductive choices they make (such as whether to continue or end a pregnancy) is controlled by a male partner. This report makes clear that ‘for some young women pregnancy was not a personal choice due to their experiences of sexual violence and coercion’. Arguably, the choice to continue a pregnancy or to have an abortion may also be one which is heavily influenced by a controlling partner.
So what can be done? The NSPCC report recommends that work is carried out which challenges negative stereotypes around teenage pregnancy and that greater awareness of the issues relating to domestic violence and young pregnant women is encouraged. The Include research found that the majority of young women were accepting of screening for domestic violence during antenatal/abortion appointments and provided this is done sensitively and with thorough training it provides a chance to pick up on any violence or coercion a young woman may be facing.
There are some great charities such as Tender delivering educational work on domestic violence to young people. This sort of work seeks to raise awareness about what domestic violence is and challenge some of the gendered and societal assumptions which can form silence and acceptance around it. At EFC we’ve long been arguing (alongside most of the young people we meet!) that more attention needs to be paid to the ‘R’ in SRE. By giving young people a better grasp of what a balanced, safe relationship looks like we give them the tools to recognise coercion, and hopefully find professional help and support should they need it.