Making the Link Between Dating Violence and Women's Reproductive Health

The abuse suffered by pop singer Rhianna, allegedly at the hands of fellow singer and longtime boyfriend Chris Brown, has put the issue of dating violence front and center before the nation’s teens. Blogs and entertainment sites are filled with conversations about what causes violence, when punishment is appropriate and how severe it should be, when forgiveness is the right choice, and much more. But as so often is the case, there’s one aspect of the issue that’s largely absent from the conversation.

Relationship abuse has many serious consequences and one of them can be harm to a woman’s reproductive health. Studies show that relationship or dating abuse can have reproductive health consequences, including unplanned pregnancy and exposure to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS transmissions. This happens most often to young women.

In fact, girls who are victims of violence from dating partners are four to six times more likely than non-abused girls to become pregnant, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. One in three adolescents tested for sexually transmitted infections and HIV have experienced domestic violence.

Physical violence is not the only form of abuse facing young women today. Birth control sabotage and sexual coercion are insidious forms of abuse and control that occur much more often than many people realize.

One young woman, “Janey” shared her story of an abusive boyfriend. “Every time I would confront him about his lies and unfaithfulness, he would force himself on me sexually. He always refused to wear a condom and would act offended when I suggested he use one,” she said. Other forms of women’s contraception made Janey phsysically ill. When she would confront the boyfriend and try to end the relationship, he would become enraged and threaten her. She eventually became pregnant and was diagnosed repeatedly with STD’s even though he was her only partner. She was not able to end the relationship until she involved the police and attained an order of protection.

Janey’s story resonates with a lot of young women. It also belies the old stereotype that attributes unplanned pregnancies and STIs to promiscuity or irresponsible behavior. Abuse in relationships is intrinsically linked to women’s – especially young women’s -- reproductive health, and any serious attempt to reduce unplanned pregnancy and STI rates must help prevent this kind of abuse.

States across the country are beginning to take notice. Texas recently adopted a law that requires school districts to define dating violence in school safety codes, following the 2003 stabbing death of Ortralla Mosley, 15, in a hallway of her Austin high school and the shooting death of Jennifer Ann Crecente, 18, two years ago. Rhode Island in 2007 adopted the Lindsay Ann Burke Act — prompted by the murder of a young woman by a former boyfriend; it requires school districts to teach students in grades 7 through 12 about dating abuse and healthy relationships.

The Family Violence Prevention Fund is holding a briefing on the Hill on Thursday, working with Congressional leaders to start, for the first time ever, making a link in public policy that mirrors the link between relationship abuse and women’s reproductive health issues.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2005 contained groundbreaking new initiatives including programs to train health care providers to assess patients for domestic violence and intervene to help those who are victims of abuse, encourage men to teach the next generation that violence is wrong, and provide crisis services for victims of rape and sexual assault.

But Congress has not yet funded many of the new prevention programs the law contains. That needs to change. President Obama created a White House Council on Women and Girls and one of its mandates is to help prevent violence against women. It won’t succeed unless Congress funds these new VAWA health programs, and we all begin to recognize the link between violence and women’s reproductive health.