ONE often overlooked aspect of poverty is its link to domestic violence. Although domestic violence can involve persons from any background, poverty and domestic violence are mutually reinforcing.
In August, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Prof Philip Alston, conducted a country visit to Malaysia. During his visit to Kuala Lumpur, the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) hosted a discussion on the relationship between poverty and domestic violence, giving survivors of domestic violence who came from poverty a platform to share their lived realities with the Special Rapporteur.
One survivor, Siti, shared her experience of living in poverty from the day she was born. After Siti’s first husband died, she remarried, only to find out her husband abused drugs and alcohol. In the rural area where Siti was from, poverty is a norm, as is substance abuse.
Siti’s husband abused her regularly, and because of both the poverty and the domestic violence, Siti’s daughter dropped out of school at 14 years old. After Siti and her children came to WAO for shelter, Siti struggled to get a job that paid enough to support herself and her children. Siti’s daughter has given up hope that she can succeed academically, and now aims to get vocational skills training to help get her family out of poverty.
Siti’s experience exemplifies how poverty creates aggravating circumstances for violence and presents barriers to escaping abuse. For example, although factors such as economic stress and drug abuse (both commonly associated with poverty) are not themselves the cause of domestic violence, they can contribute to the violence.
Poverty also makes it harder for women to escape domestic violence, since a woman who is completely financially dependent on her abuser would find that leaving is simply is not an option as she has no other way to provide food and shelter for herself and her children.
At the same time as poverty perpetuates domestic violence, domestic violence also perpetuates poverty by hindering women’s financial independence and creating new cycles of poverty for children.
In the case of Kate, another survivor of domestic violence, her husband prevented her from working outside the home.
This left Kate and her children entirely dependent on her abusive husband. Kate’s economic dependence was compounded by the social isolation that often marks domestic violence situations.
Domestic violence also perpetuates and creates new cycles of poverty for children. Child survivors often experience disruptions to their education, falling behind in school, underperforming academically, or even dropping out altogether, as Siti’s daughter did.
The effects of such educational upheaval are not limited to childhood but continue on into adulthood, when the survivor’s earning capacity and overall economic prospects are diminished.
A critical component of breaking the cycles of both domestic violence and poverty is the availability of domestic violence shelters and related services for survivors.
Whether the domestic violence is the root cause of the poverty, or the pre-existing condition of poverty is perpetuating the domestic violence, interventions to domestic violence are fundamental.
This is underscored by the case of Yasmin, who endured 12 years of abuse by her husband. During this time, Yasmin lost all financial and social support from her family and friends.
When she decided to leave her husband, she could not even afford to buy food. She needed shelter, protection and support to be able to get a job to support herself and her children and to eventually become independent.
Without being able to access shelter and the accompanying social work support, Yasmin may not have been able to leave her abuser, or she might have been forced to return to him, or been forced to live on the streets.
To combat the two interrelated issues of poverty and domestic violence, the government must allocate greater resources towards dedicated domestic violence shelters and support services, as well as to social safety nets and poverty reduction programmes for low-income communities.
More information is available in WAO’s full policy brief, available at wao.org.my.
WOMEN’S AID ORGANISATION
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