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Times of India
15 October 2009
By Kounteya Sinha
New Delhi, India

Harvard Study Links Domestic Violence To Child Mortality
Abused Mothers’ Kids May Die before 5 Years
Scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML) have found a connection between domestic violence and under–five mortality.

In a large–scale first–of–itskind study linking domestic violence and child health, scientists have found that children in India whose mothers experience domestic violence are more likely to die before the age of five years.

With a sample size as big as 39,096 children (aged less than 60 months) from the 2005–2006 National Family Health Survey, the researchers found that children whose mothers were beaten up at home by their husbands or psychologically abused had a 21% increased likelihood of dying before their fifth birthday as compared to children with no such family history of violence. This result was almost identical for infants aged less than one year and children aged one to five.

Infants, however, seemed particularly vulnerable to different forms of familial abuse, as those aged less than one were nearly 50% more likely to die if their mothers suffered physical abuse in combination with sexual or psychological abuse.

“Domestic violence is a terrible ordeal for any woman to go through, and we have long known that such abuse has harmful effects on a woman’s health. Here is strong evidence that violence against women has ripple effects that can have a detrimental, even lethal, impact on her children,” the authors told TOI.

Explaining the reason for such a link, Dr S V Subramanian, associate professor of society, human development and health at HSPH and senior author of the study, said, “One possible explanation revolves around the health of the mother. Women who are abused are more likely to suffer from physical and psychological illnesses. These illnesses may make a mother less able to access health care services for her child or to attend to her child’s daily health needs.”

Dr Leland Ackerson, assistant professor of community health and sustainability, UML, added, “The second explanation is that the link between domestic violence and child mortality may also reflect the effects of psychological stress. Children who witness domestic violence tend to experience stress–related physiological changes, such as atypical cortisol production patterns, which could lower their immune defences and make them more vulnerable to illness.”

The findings will appear in the November issue of the medical journal ‘Pediatrics’.

NFHS–III, carried out in 29 states in 2005–06, had found that 37% women reported being physically or sexually abused by husbands some time in their lives. But Dr Subramanian says the survey has under–reported the menace of spousal violence and believes it to be between 50 and 70%.

“Reducing domestic violence is clearly important from a moral and intrinsic perspective, and that this study provides a compelling case to also address the problem from the perspective of health effects,” Subramanian added. Earlier, Dr Subramanian was the first to link domestic violence with the rising cases of asthma in India. He had found that women who are victims of domestic violence have a 37% increased risk of suffering from asthma. Similarly, children aged between 0–4 years living with women who experienced domestic violence were found to be 30% more at risk of suffering from asthma.

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