Domestic violence in Australia: definition, prevalence and nature of presentation in clinical practice

Kelsey Hegarty, Elizabeth D Hindmarsh and Marisa T Gilles
Med J Aust 2000; 173 (7): 363-367.


  • Domestic violence is a complex pattern of behaviours that may include, in addition to physical acts of violence, sexual abuse and emotional abuse.
  • Women experience domestic violence at far greater rates than men do, and women and children often live in fear as a result of the abuse that is used by men to maintain control over their partners.
  • Domestic violence is a major public health problem and is very common in women attending clinical practice.
  • Women present most commonly with a range of chronic symptoms to unsuspecting general practitioners, emergency department doctors or medical specialists.
  • Women who have experienced partner abuse want to be asked about it and are more likely to disclose if asked in an empathic, non-judgemental way. Doctors can make a difference.


In the past decade, domestic violence has been recognised as a major public health problem. It affects all people, irrespective of economic, educational, social, geographic or racial background,1 resulting in significant morbidity and mortality.2 However, lack of agreement about the basic features of domestic violence makes case identification difficult.3 In view of these uncertainties, we attempt to define "domestic violence" and explore how current attitudes influence measurement and estimated prevalence of domestic violence, and how it presents in clinical practice.

How do we define "domestic violence"?

The terms "violence", "abuse" and "battering" are frequently used interchangeably. In studies of the Australian community, "domestic violence" is usually taken to mean partner abuse, specifically physical violence between a male and female partner, most commonly perpetrated by the male partner.4 (A "partner" is a person who has been or is having an intimate relationship with another person -- ie, a married or de facto partner, a boyfriend or girlfriend). However, "domestic violence" (or "family violence") may also be used to refer to abuse that occurs in any relationship within households (ie, including abuse of children, elders or siblings). Much of this article deals with partner abuse against women, as women are most commonly the victims,5-7 but this is not to deny that there are rare cases of men being beaten by women.8

Under Australian law, use of the term "domestic violence" refers exclusively to violence committed by a heterosexual partner and includes physical injury, intimidation or serious harassment, wilful damage to property, indecent behaviour without consent, or a threat to commit any of these acts.9

However, from a health perspective, domestic violence can be better understood as a chronic syndrome characterised not only by episodes of physical violence but also by the emotional and psychological abuse that perpetrators use to maintain control over their partners -- ". . . most women experiencing partner abuse report that the physical violence is the least damaging suffered: it is the relentless psychological abuse that cripples and isolates the woman".10

The Australian Medical Association recently produced a position statement asserting that

"Domestic violence is an abuse of power. It is the domination, coercion, intimidation and victimisation of one person by another by physical, sexual or emotional means within intimate relationships."11

The Australian Public Health Association employs a comprehensive definition of "domestic violence", outlining examples of abusive behaviour:1

  • Physical abuse, causing pain and injury; denial of sleep, warmth or nutrition; denial of needed medical care; sexual assault; violence to property or animals; disablement; and murder;


  • Verbal abuse, in private or in public, designed to humiliate, degrade, demean, intimidate, subjugate, including the threat of physical violence;


  • Economic abuse, including deprivation of basic necessities, seizure of income or assets, unreasonable denial of the means necessary for participation in social life; and


  • Social abuse, through isolation, control of all social activity, deprivation of liberty, or the deliberate creation of unreasonable dependence.


How common is domestic violence in Australia?

It is now accepted that domestic violence is very common in Australia. An estimate of the magnitude of the problem can be obtained from public records (police reports, hospital records, applications for protection orders, lists of refuge positions, and spousal homicides), clinical samples and community surveys. Although public records have inherent bias in their non-random selection and under-reporting of samples, they do show that women are the main victims of domestic violence:


  • Police figures reveal that women are over eight times more likely to be victims than males;12


  • Crime surveys show that a third of all assaults on women are by partners, whereas the number of assaults on men by their partners is too small to produce reliable estimates.12,13


  • Victorian public hospital figures show that 1.3% of women and 0.14% of men admitted to emergency departments are there as a result of partner-inflicted injury.14


  • Each year, more than 20 000 women in Australia seek shelter in women's refuges and take out protection orders.9

A recent review in Western Australia showed that the incidence per 100 000 adult women of injury from domestic violence varied according to the source of public records used: 1.6 (police-recorded homicides), 129.2 (hospital admissions data), 183.5 (recorded crime), and 248.1 (restraining order data).12

In Australian survey research, women are three times more likely than men to experience an episode of physical violence by their partners.6,7

Domestic violence rates vary depending on the definition used15 and whether the data are from community crime victim surveys12,13 or prevalence studies in clinical samples6,7,16-19 or community samples.20 Clinical studies in emergency departments and antenatal clinics indicate that between 19.3%7 and 25.0%17 of women will be subjected to domestic violence over their lifetime. Surveys of women attending general practice in Australia reveal varying partner abuse rates of 8.0%16 and 28%18 in a 12-month period. The only population-based study that investigates physical and sexual violence, the Women's Safety Survey,20 found that 2.6% of women who currently had partners had experienced an incident of violence in the previous 12 months, and 8.0% had experienced violence at some stage in their relationship.


How does domestic violence present in practice?

There are major barriers to women disclosing situations of domestic violence.21,22 Reasons given include fear, denial and disbelief, emotional bonds to their partner, commitment to marriage, hope for change, staying for the sake of the children, "normalisation" of violence, social isolation, depression, stress, and feeling that they will not be believed or that services will not be able to help.22,23

When women come to the realisation that they can not change the situation however hard they try, and that they need help, relatively few present to domestic violence services or the police in the first instance.24 They may seek help from family or friends, general practitioners, personal and relationship counsellors, child specialists, psychiatrists, teachers, hospital staff, solicitors, family support services, self-help groups, church representatives or charity organisations.23

It is important to realise that women who have been abused want to be asked about domestic violence and are more likely to disclose if asked.15,25 However, most women present to doctors with a variety of complaints without disclosing that there is a background of domestic violence. The wide range of potential clinical indicators of domestic violence (see Box 1) can make it difficult to detect, but if women present frequently with some of these problems over time the clinician should be alert to the possibility of domestic violence. While some abused women report that they specifically sought help for such symptoms, others say that they sought help for the perceived underlying cause of the abuse (eg, marital conflict, their partner's mental health, a drug and alcohol or gambling problem) or wanted information about how to deal with the violence.23

Women may present with overt physical injuries, but more commonly with a range of chronic symptoms, to unsuspecting GPs, emergency department doctors or medical specialists.

Women are at higher risk if they

  • are less than 40 years of age;


  • have a past history of child abuse or have a child who is currently being abused;


  • have undergone recent separation or divorce;


  • are socially isolated;


  • have an accompanying partner who is overattentive;


  • present frequently;


  • delay in seeking treatment or are non-compliant.26

The diagnosis of domestic violence is an important challenge to all doctors in clinical practice26 because patients increasingly point to positive interactions with medical professionals as one of the important elements in their recovery. The stories in Boxes 2 and 3 (based on actual cases) illustrate situations that clinicians may encounter.


Screening for domestic violence

Researchers have developed several scales to measure domestic violence (see Box 4). Although the American Medical Association has suggested routine screening, this is not recommended for a general population, as tested and proven interventions to reduce morbidity and mortality are lacking.43 Nevertheless, opportunistic screening in practice settings such as emergency departments, psychiatric clinics, antenatal clinics and general practice is still considered worthwhile.43 Health professionals need to use a variety of questions to elicit women's experiences of domestic violence, taking into account different types of women (eg, women with disabilities, Indigenous women, women in lesbian relationships and women of non-English-speaking background). Examples of questions doctors could ask a patient if they suspect domestic violence are given in Box 5.


ConclusionsDomestic violence is a complex pattern of behaviours that may include, in addition to physical acts of violence, sexual abuse and emotional abuse, such as social isolation and financial deprivation.

In spite of the lack of agreement on definitions, domestic violence is clearly a very common, hidden problem for many patients attending clinical practice. Doctors need to be aware of the many potential indicators of domestic violence26 and should ask about abuse in an empathic, non-judgemental way.25 At an individual level, domestic violence can cause physical and emotional ill health; the underlying abuse needs to be recognised and dealt with directly if women and their children are to be safe. Domestic violence is clearly a significant public health problem that all clinicians need to be aware of to enable them to act as advocates for their patients.



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Authors' details

Department of General Practice and Public Health, University of Melbourne, VIC.
Kelsey Hegarty, MB BS, PhD, Senior Lecturer.

Women's Health, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Sydney, NSW.
Elizabeth D Hindmarsh, MB BS, FRACGP, Chairperson.

Public Health Unit Gascoyne, Carnarvon, WA.
Marisa T Gilles, BSc, MB Chb, MPH, Director.

Reprints will not be available from the authors.
Correspondence: Dr K Hegarty, Department of General Practice and Public Health, University of Melbourne, 200 Berkeley Street, Carlton, VIC 3053.

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1: Potential clinical indicators of domestic violence26

Suicidal ideation
Anxiety symptoms and panic disorder
Somatoform disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Eating disorders
Drug and alcohol abuse

Obvious injuries, especially to the head and neck or multiple areas
Bruises in various stages of healing
Sexual assault
Sexually transmitted diseases
Chronic pelvic pain
Chronic abdominal pain
Chronic headaches
Chronic back pain
Numbness and tingling from injuries

Pregnancy and childbirth
Unwanted pregnancy
Antepartum haemorrhage
Lack of prenatal care
Low birthweight of infant

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2: Presentation of domestic violence to a general practitioner

Jane*, aged 38, has two children aged 5 and 9, and is now 20 weeks' pregnant. She is well dressed, slightly overweight, and presents for review of her blood pressure, which was high on a previous visit to the obstetrician the week before. She has been married nine years to Theo*, a plumber. She is not in paid work.



  • No previous history of hypertension with pregnancies.
  • One previous miscarriage and an antepartum haemorrhage with her last pregnancy.
  • Recurrent presentations for vaginal discharge to a GP in the past few years.
  • Multiple presentations with the children for behavioural problems.

Her blood pressure was again slightly raised, which she explained was because she had been a bit busy.


GP:How are things at home?

Jane: [angrily] Fine, thanks.

GP:It must be hard at home with two other children. Does your husband help?

Jane:He only makes things worse.

GP:Can you tell me more about it?

Jane:Look, after years of putting up with him I moved out, and last week, on my son's birthday, I let Theo come around to give the boy his present and he became angry and abusive again. He smashed a plate glass window and it fell onto the boy's head.

GP:This is serious. Are you and the children safe?


I'm not sure.

How was abuse recognised?
Looking back through the patient's notes, there was mention of "matrimonial disharmony" - direct questioning at the time might have resulted in an earlier disclosure. However, it may be that Jane was only ready to disclose after she had left Theo. Breaking the silence breaks the isolation and provides a way out for when the woman decides to take it.

* Actual names have been changed.

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3: Presentation of domestic violence to a general practitioner

Rebecca*, aged 30, attractive and well dressed, presents requesting a referral for breast enlargement. She has been married eight years to John*, a busy lawyer. She does some secretarial and accounting work for him.


A number of previous referrals for plastic surgery.


Can you tell me what concerns you about your breasts?

Rebecca:I hate them. I have nothing there and I look ugly.

GP:Do you really believe that?

Rebecca:My husband does.

GP: What does he say to you about it?

Rebecca:He doesn't like the way I look now even though he used to. I try so hard to please him and I've had operations before but he is still not happy with me [in tears now]. It's horrible - he tears off my clothes in front of the mirror and says "Would you sleep with this?".

GP: What else does he do that makes you upset?

Rebecca:He tells me frequently that I am stupid and ugly.

GP:That must be difficult for you. Do you feel in control of your life?

Rebecca:No, he controls all the finances and tells me what to wear every day. He throws my clothes on the fire if he doesn't like them.

GP:Has he ever physically hurt you?

Rebecca:He has never hit me, although he has kicked the wall, smashed things and threatened to punch me a few times.

GP: What is the worst thing that has happened to you?

Rebecca:He forced me to have sex on several occasions against my will, but the worst was when he poisoned my dog because I had grown too fond of the dog.

GP:Are you afraid of him?

Rebecca:Yes ...


She had tried to leave him on a number of occasions but had returned each time, as she had few economic resources of her own and little confidence in her own abilities to survive without him. She had few people to confide in.


How was abuse recognised?
Abuse was recognised because of a high level of suspicion, followed up by direct questioning.

* Actual names have been changed.

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4: Measuring domestic violence

The Conflict Tactics Scale
Researchers in family violence have defined "violence" as "an act carried out with the intention of, or perceived intention of, causing physical pain or injury to another person".27 To measure "violence" they have developed the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS). Although the CTS is the scale most commonly used,28 it has been widely criticised for measuring conflict tactics (ie, overt actions used by persons in response to a conflict of interest) rather than coercive tactics, and for concentrating on physical violence alone and not eliciting information about the intensity, context, consequences or meaning of the action.3,9,29,30

Other scales
Several other scales (eg, the Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory, the Index of Spouse Abuse, the Measure of Wife Abuse, the Abuse Risk Inventory for Women31-34) have been developed to broaden the definition of domestic violence to include emotional and sexual abuse. Apart from the Composite Abuse Scale,35 which has been validated across three Australian clinical populations,16 these scales have only been validated on small samples. All of these scales are long and would be difficult to use as a screening tool in a busy clinical setting. Several researchers16,21,36,37 have trialled shorter screening tools to measure domestic violence in clinical settings on small, selective samples.

Quantitative v qualitative research
Each researcher and practitioner appears to define "domestic violence" according to his or her own perspective. Quantitative research using the CTS utilises the physical abuse concepts outlined by Straus,38,39 while qualitative research uses a broader definition of domestic violence.3,40 Not all violent behaviour between partners may constitute domestic violence. Johnson41 argues that some families suffer from occasional outbursts of violence from either husbands or wives ("common couple violence"), while other families are terrorised by systematic male violence ("patriarchal terrorism").42

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5: Suggestions for how the subject of domestic violence could be raised with a patient

  • Has your partner ever physically threatened or hurt you?


  • Is there a lot of tension in your relationship?


  • How do you resolve arguments?21


  • Sometimes partners react strongly in arguments and use physical force. Is this happening to you?


  • Are you afraid of your partner?16


  • Violence is very common in the home. I ask a lot of my patients about abuse because no one should have to live in fear of their partners.


  • Within the last year, have you been hit, slapped, kicked, or otherwise physically hurt by someone? Or has anyone forced you to have sexual activities?36


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  • Kelsey Hegarty1
  • Elizabeth D Hindmarsh2
  • Marisa T Gilles3

  • 1 Department of General Practice and Public Health, University of Melbourne, VIC
  • 2 Women's Health, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Sydney, NSW
  • 3 Public Health Unit Gascoyne, Carnarvon, WA


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