Domestic abuse is an economic issue – for its victims and for society

Published on: 
06 December 2019
Written by: 

Dr Sara Reis
Research and Policy Officer
UK Women's Budget Group

Violence against women is first and foremost a violation of women’s human rights. During these 16 days of activism against VAWG (violence against women and girls), we highlight how economic inequality is facilitating violence perpetrated by men against women. We need to make our economy work for women so women can be safer, and a properly functioning social security system is integral to this.

Often, economic equality and safety from violence against women and girls are seen as separate issues.

However, gender norms, inadequate public services, the gender pay gap and downright discrimination all contribute to women’s disadvantaged position in the economy. Women do more unpaid work around the house and by taking care of children and frail adults. This means they earn less, own less and are more likely to be poor.

Women are therefore more likely to be financially dependent on someone else or on the state. The erosion of the state’s welfare safety net and increasingly stringent access rules have a disproportionate impact on women. Women are placed in a precarious economic position that has a knock-on effect on their safety.

Poverty is associated with domestic abuse as both a cause and a consequence. It prolongs women’s exposure to abuse by reducing their ability to leave and it makes women poorer on leaving the relationship.

Poorer households show higher rates of domestic abuse. Women in households with low incomes are 3.5 times more likely to experience domestic violence than women in slightly better-off households. The links are complex but one thing is certain: poverty exacerbates the abuse because it increases or prolongs women’s exposure to it as it reduces their capacity to leave.

One answer to the old question: ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ becomes evident when we look at the statistics: for the vast majority of women, economic abuse happens alongside other forms of domestic abuse. This may include coercive control of finances (97% of domestic abuse victims), sabotage - such as the abuser showing up at the woman’s workplace or making her late to undermine her job - (89%), and financial exploitation (87%). There are many reasons why women don’t leave violent relationships, and fear for their safety and their children’s is one of the biggest. But financial insecurity also looms large in women’s decision-making.

But when a woman does leave, her economic situation is still dire and often gets worse. She may need to leave the area and therefore lose her job. If she was on working-age benefits or housing benefit, she will need to make a new claim and will be transferred to universal credit, which takes five weeks to process before she receives payment. How can she support herself and her children in the meantime?

These issues are compounded for certain groups of women. Disabled women have even fewer resources due to their lower rates of employment and wider gender pay gaps compared to disabled and non-disabled men. Cuts to benefits since 2010 and stringent eligibility criteria, including sanctions, have made it harder for disabled women (and men) to have a liveable income. Disabled women will face additional barriers to leave due to inaccessible services, transport and available adapted homes, but also because their abusive partner is often their carer.

Many migrant women have what’s called ‘no recourse to public funds’. This means they cannot use the social security, housing or women’s refuge services available to other women. Women with no recourse to public funds by virtue of their migration status are a group that is economically very vulnerable to domestic abuse. Their options on leaving are even worse than for other women, as they can’t access benefits and only a reduced number of refuges and shelters can accommodate them.

The impact of domestic abuse on women’s – and children’s – lives is devastating and should be addressed on that basis alone, on the violation of women’s human rights that it is. By the government’s own admission, domestic violence also has an alarming negative impact on society as whole: domestic violence costs England and Wales £66bn every year through things like lost productivity, health and criminal justice costs, and harm to victims.

It is time the government recognised the importance of ensuring women’s economic equality and independence when designing social security policy. There are a few key changes that could be made that would make a real difference to women’s lives and contribute to ensuring their safety:

  • Affordable childcare needs to be introduced alongside flexible working as the norm in most workplaces to ensure that women and men can share care more equally and fairly, and that women can continue to earn an independent income when they become mothers.
  • Women with no recourse to public funds need to be able to access support and refuges too, so there need to be mechanisms in place that swiftly allow women with no recourse facing violence to have access to benefits, support and housing.

And finally, we need a safety net that truly saves people from destitution and allows survivors to rebuild their lives. Individual entitlements are crucial for ensuring financial autonomy and women’s safety.

Social security needs to work for all groups of women, not against them.

Read more in our reports:

A Home of Her Own: Women and Housing
Benefits or barriers: Making social security work for survivors of violence and abuse across the UK’s four nations

Secure Futures blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of CPAG.