Poverty, domestic violence: Women bearing brunt of economic crisis

October 25, 2009

A domestic violence shelter in Alice Springs told ABC radio's AM on May 1 that between January 1 and mid-April this year, it provided accommodation for 157 children and 149 women. However, due to lack of funding, it turned away a further 158 women and 100 children seeking support.

In other words, for each woman it provided shelter to, one was turned away. Where did she go? In all likelihood, she ended up back with her abusive partner.

We live in a society that still, in many respects, treats women as second-class citizens. Women's supposedly predominant role as bearers and carers of children, combined with inadequate childcare services and maternity leave provisions, mean women are discriminated against in employment. Women are highly concentrated in part-time and casual jobs.

This situation leaves women more vulnerable to economic hardship. When the chips are down, such as in the current global economic crisis, women are the first hit. Women are the first to lose their jobs. Financial independence, and the options that come with that — such as leaving an abusive partner — is still a dream for many women.

Women bear the brunt of trauma and hardship, such as war and economic recession. The global economic crisis has disproportionately affected women in terms of poverty and unemployment.

However, women are also experiencing an increase in violence within the home. A 2009 United Nations report also noted a rise in the number of women remaining in abusive relationships because of a lack of affordable alternative accommodation, an inability to sell property and decreased support services.

In Australia, ongoing funding cuts to women's services mean national domestic violence statistics are sketchy. However, the available state and local figures are alarming.
In Queensland, in the first quarter of 2005, 6874 new cases of domestic violence were reported. In the first quarter of 2009, it rose to 9739 new cases — a 42% rise.

The January 29 Newcastle Herald said that between 2005 and 2008, the number of domestic Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) issued rose by more than 7%. However, in Queensland, the numbers did not peak until 2009, so the real rise in NSW could be significantly higher.

In poor and regional areas the situation is worse.

US figures tell a similar story. The National Domestic Violence Hotline had a spike of calls in September 2008, which were up 21% from September 2007. The organisation conducted a six-week study to determine the cause of the rise.

It found a strong link between financial stress and domestic violence: 54% of callers reported a change in their household's financial situation in the past year and 64% of callers answered "yes" to the question "do you believe the abusive behaviour has increased in the past year?"

A 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice found that women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused.

Frighteningly, the violence is also becoming more deadly. The December 25 Boston Globe reported: "Economic stresses often lead to more frequent abuse, more violent abuse, and more dangerous abuse when domestic violence already exists."

A series of reports in the Sydney Morning Herald in November 2008 revealed that, in NSW, the number of deaths of women and children as a result of domestic violence had risen to a 10-year high.

In Australia, domestic violence is now the most likely cause of preventable death for women under 45. It is also the leading cause of preventable disabilities and illnesses for women under 45.

Higher assault rates are made worse by inadequate support services. Government funding for women's services is considerably less than it was a decade ago, despite the marked rise in demand.

This situation is the result of neoliberal funding cuts and a conservative anti-feminist ideological campaign. Consecutive governments have blamed domestic violence on individual family breakdowns and unhealthy relationships, rather than recognising the social basis of violence against women.

The swell in the number of domestic violence cases is not a setback in an otherwise generally improving situation. Before the economic crisis, domestic violence in Australia was already a growing social problem.

Rates dramatically rose across NSW between 1997 and 2002. Figures released by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research show that, for this period, the recorded instance of domestic assault rose by 40% in the Sydney area and 50% across the rest of NSW.

A huge injection of public funding is needed to support essential crisis services for victims of domestic violence to prevent the needless death of so many women and children.

Beyond that, the underlying causes of domestic violence — unemployment, insecurity, poverty, disadvantage and women's financial dependence on male partners — have to be addressed.

Collective opposition to attacks on women's rights is the only force powerful enough to empower women, to change sexist social attitudes and stop all forms of violence against women.

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