Hidden abuse of mums-to-be

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PREGNANT WOMEN beaten-up by their husbands or boyfriends are becoming more reluctant to report assaults because their assailants are now encouraged to accompany them on hospital check-ups.

Experts claim that the Government's father-friendly policies are backfiring because women are now rarely able to talk in confidence to doctors and midwives.

New research to be published next year will show that almost one in 10 women in Britain is a victim of domestic abuse during pregnancy. In the largest study ever carried out, midwives at St George's Medical School and at Guy's and St Thomas's NHS Trust in London interviewed 1,000 women, of whom 80 said they had been abused by a husband or boyfriend.

This figure is believed to be a conservative estimate because women often reveal they are victims of violence only after being questioned several times.

Dr Gill Mezey, a forensic psychiatrist who headed the study, says that women are now more at risk because they are being denied confidential time with doctors.

"The Government is pushing for fathers to have a joint involvement in childbirth, so women often have their husbands tagging along at the clinic," she said. "This means they often do not say what is happening so they are not treated as high-risk patients."

While stopping short of advocating that fathers be barred from visiting doctors and midwives with their partners, the researchers said their results revealed an unexpected consequence of a generally laudable initiative.

Sarah, 19, was beaten by her boyfriend throughout her pregnancy. His attacks were so violent that her placenta was damaged. She now lives in a refuge with her six-month-old baby Marie after her aunt contacted the social services.

"Often I would not see my family for weeks until the bruises had gone," she said. "The worst time was when I was in the bath and he ordered me to open the door then he started hitting me with a belt."

The teenager eventually left her partner after Marie was born. "The last time he hit me was when I was holding the baby," she said. "He was punching me in the face and the baby started crying. I was trembling so much I bumped her head and then he hit me even more."

The project's findings are backed by research in the US and Scandinavia which has found that 17 per cent of women were attacked in the first three months of their pregnancies.