Sydney woman Anna said her marriage was “healthy and equal” except when it came to the subject of family planning. Her husband wanted kids as soon as possible but she wanted to establish her career first.
“As our relationship progressed, he became more demanding of me having children,” she said in a white paper on reproductive coercion released last week by national not-for-profit sexual and reproductive health service provider Marie Stopes Australia.
“When I reached 30 it intensified, when I achieved a promotion at work, his demands further increased,” Anna, one of the women who shared her story under a pseudonym, said.
“His behaviour really took me by surprise and made me feel like I had no choice. I had to get pregnant.”
Reproductive coercion is any behaviour that deliberately prevents a person from making decisions about their reproductive health. It includes contraceptive sabotage; pressuring another person into falling pregnant, continuing a pregnancy, or ending a pregnancy; or forcing a person into sterilisation.
Anna said she would take the contraceptive pill without telling her husband because she didn't want to become pregnant. Eventually when she stopped using contraception and gave in to getting pregnant, her husband “directed everything” and it was tiring.
“He wanted to have sex every day, sometimes several times a day,” she said.
“I felt like I was on this merry-go-round and that the best thing for me to do was to just be compliant.”
Her pregnancy was “overshadowed by the rage and aggression” of her husband, she said.
When she miscarried, Anna said, her husband was “great” at first but then became “single-mindedly focused on trying for another baby”.
“My body and my mind were just not ready for another pregnancy,” she said.
“I felt like I had lost all safety in my body.”
Anna said she felt worthless and that her only purpose in her marriage was to procreate.
The couple are separated right now and Anna said her husband maintains that to fix their relationship she needs to “give him children”.
Victorian woman Helen, a pseudonym, said during her schooling in an “ultra-orthodox closed Jewish community” she was never exposed to books, especially sex education materials, that “even suggested what a normal relationship between adult partners should look like”.
“From a young age I was taught that my only purpose in life as an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman was to give birth to the next generation of law-abiding ultra-orthodox Jews,” she said in the report, a culmination of a 20-month consultation process with stakeholders from across the health, academic, legal, media, and political sectors.
“My education was heavily based on the idea that the only purpose of having children was to further this mission,” she said.
“The lack of education meant I had no exposure to material that would inform me of my rights.”
She was arranged to marry a young man and before the wedding she was given lessons about how to have sexual relations with him.
“At 18 the knowledge I had about my body and my rights were that of a 4-year-old,” she said.
“I understood that if there were any issues with pregnancy, birth control, or giving birth, the rabbi would make the final decision on how to proceed.”
She was told she was not to be naked near her husband during menstruation or the seven days after her period had finished as she was considered “unclean”.
She checked her own “cleanliness” twice a day with special cloths to ensure there was no blood (if she found blood she had to start counting the seven “clean” days again).
“My underwear or special cloth was taken to the rabbi and he would inspect it and then make his ruling,” she said. “All other decisions regarding the reproductive process were also decided by the rabbi.”
Helen said she wasn't able to get pregnant naturally, so she asked the rabbi for permission to access fertility treatments.
“I could not go on birth control without gaining permission from the rabbi,” she said.
“After I gave birth to my daughter and struggled with postpartum depression I asked my husband to ask our rabbi for permission to go on birth control.”
Her husband refused to ask the rabbi and Helen said this “played a part” in the breakdown of their marriage.
“All of my reproductive decisions ultimately were made by the rabbi and a lack of education meant I believed this was the norm,” she said.
“The culture I lived in meant I had very little to no understanding about the rights I had to my own body and reproductive decisions.”
Victorian woman Ella, a pseudonym, said the religious community she was raised in was controlled by men.
“The Jehovah’s Witness religion I grew up in made me feel immense pressure to maintain my virginity,” she said.
“I dreaded the prospect of being trapped by a lifelong commitment to a husband in a community that would dictate what we did in the bedroom and I started to realise that I did not belong because I didn’t want to be married or have children in that stifling community.”
She left her religion, losing her social and familial networks.
“If you wanted to have an abortion you would need to hide it from your community for fear of being shunned,” she said.
“This is a huge burden on your mental health.
“While I didn’t have an abortion I was always prepared to, and this made me feel guilty throughout my child-bearing years.”
Trying to access medical care and mental health support was economically and socially difficult in such a community, she said.
“If you are a woman in a high-control community like this, you have limited access to income, you don’t have a voice, and you don’t have control over your body,” she said.
Reproductive coercion isn't always defined by an intimate partner, the white paper notes, as government policies or medical practitioners can also influence how much autonomy and control a patient has over her decisions around her reproductive health.
Immigrant, refugee, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia can struggle to access healthcare, particularly those who have arrived under temporary protection visas and can't access contraception, maternal health, and abortion services.
Athieng, the pseudonym given to her in the white paper, came to Australia from Sudan with her husband and two children three years ago.
Her husband was violent and she made the difficult and complicated decision to
leave him. Weeks later she discovered she was pregnant.
“She could not have the child as she was already struggling financially and emotionally,” the report noted.
When Athieng went to a doctor to ask for a termination she was told by the doctor that
abortion was illegal everywhere in Australia. At that time abortion was technically in her state's criminal code but she could have accessed a lawful abortion on mental health grounds.
“Athieng felt trapped,” the report said.
It was only after a few more weeks that she was told by a women’s health advocate that she could legally access an abortion, but by that stage Athieng’s gestation was beyond the
legal limit for a termination in Queensland.
Through support from the Marie Stopes Australia Choice Fund and other women’s health organisations, Athieng was supported to travel to Victoria for an abortion.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence and needs help or support, there are national and state-based agencies that can assist you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).