What is the role of research? In British Journal of Midwifery, the aim is for it to be informative, engaging and thoughtprovoking—but also, hopefully, inspirational. Not in the sense of a vague quote superimposed onto a mountain backdrop and uploaded to Facebook, but in moving the reader to act; to put the research into practice.
Sometimes, however, acting on the evidence can be difficult. Responding to research that midwives and maternity support workers are three times more likely to experience domestic abuse than the average UK citizen (Cavell Nurses' Trust, 2016), the latest report from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) (2018) presented evidence from midwifery leaders and RCM members. Midwifery leaders shared how they had protected those who disclosed experiences of domestic abuse, directing them to helplines and requesting support from occupational health, human resources and security staff. RCM members, however, revealed a lack of knowledge and help from colleagues, and judgement for absences, lateness or displays of emotion that appeared ‘unprofessional’.
Given that there appears to be such widespread misunderstanding, let us set the record straight. Domestic abuse, whether physical, psychological, emotional or financial, is fraught with anxiety and pain. While physical violence might be a common perception of domestic abuse, in reality it starts small, a series of micro-aggressions that go unnoticed, even by the survivor themselves. It is insidious: perpetrators' comments find the cracks in the recipient's self-esteem, networks and sense of identity and dig in, moulding the survivor into someone malleable, guilt-ridden and isolated. As to why survivors don't ‘just leave’ their abuser, it's like the forest of thorns that grows around Sleeping Beauty's castle: aside from the threat of physical danger, it becomes harder when the survivor is cut off and defenceless—and when others around them are unaware.
Even if the obstacles are surmounted, what next? Three-quarters of women who flee abusive relationships are turned away from shelters (Mangan, 2017), and many have children. To leave, survivors need money, (meaning a steady job), but as legislative changes in New Zealand have recognised (BBC, 2018), survivors may need to use work hours to escape. Sudden absences and requests for shift changes might be seen as ‘unprofessional’, but surely no one wishes for reliability and regularity more than the domestic abuse survivor.
The RCM made recommendations to NHS Trusts/Health Boards, but it's a shame that this research has not inspired greater action. Domestic abuse is more likely to affect women (RCM, 2018), and the majority of midwives are women. It is no great leap therefore to see how midwifery organisations could be the leaders of change, creating programmes and structures to address what women have said they need. The techniques that work in maternity environments could then be put into other workplaces or community groups and maybe, as in New Zealand, into law. The research is there; the hope now is that it inspires change.