Why Domestic Violence Survivors Can’t Just Leave

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Why Domestic Violence Survivors Can’t Just Leave

by Tehreem Rahman

MPH Candidate, Yale/Johns Hopkins

Why don’t people in abusive relationships just leave?

This is a question that is all too often asked. There are numerous barriers that prevent victims of domestic violence from leaving abusive situations such as racism in the criminal justice system, immigration status, and fear for one’s safety, just to name a few. Financial barriers also play a significant role.

Recent estimates suggest that approximately 94% of domestic violence survivors have experienced economic abuse. Economic abuse can entail preventing the victim from keeping employment, engaging in credit-related transactions and subsequently accruing debt in the victim’s name without his or her consent, and/or prohibiting the victim from accessing current funds. Even if a victim is able to escape, crippled financial literacy can pressure the survivor to return to the abusive situation.

Furthermore, a lack of affordable housing can prevent victims of domestic violence from escaping abuse or otherwise generate dire circumstances for those who have managed to leave. One report by the ACLU found that half of all cities in the United States point to domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness. In response, states like New York have announced plans to expand emergency housing for domestic violence survivors.

Yet, increasing access to safe and affordable housing is just one component of economic empowerment for survivors of domestic violence. In order to truly support economic empowerment, organizations providing services to survivors of domestic violence must assist them in areas such as securing further education or training, subsidizing childcare, and even something as speciously basic as attaining a driver’s license. Education, child-care, and access to transportation are each vital to a person’s capacity for both securing and maintaining employment. Indeed, such factors have previously been shown to comprise the most common barriers to low-income women’s employment.

An organization that does an incredible job of supporting the economic empowerment for survivors of domestic violence—and which I have had the honor to work with since 2009—is Domestic Harmony Foundation. Based on Long Island, DHF is dedicated to working with underserved populations, such as South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim women and children, who have difficulty utilizing mainstream domestic violence services. While procuring mental health counseling for survivors of domestic violence is certainly one of DHF’s priorities, staff and board members also spend considerable time focusing on services such as ESL classes and job training.

Other domestic violence organizations across the country have also been working tirelessly to address the numerous financial barriers confronted by victims and survivors of domestic violence. According to a 2014 report by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 88% of domestic violence organizations provided services related to transportation, 75% provided services related to financial literacy/budgeting, and 61% provided services related to job training/employment assistance. While 87% of organizations provided services related to emergency shelter, only 42% of organizations provided services related to transitional housing, 25% of organizations provided services related to safe houses, and 9% of organizations provided services related to Matched Savings Programs and/or Micro Loans.

A significant unmet need for domestic violence services remains. The 2014 report goes on to describe how approximately 11,000 request for services were unmet that year due to limited resources. 40% of those unmet needs were for emergency shelter and 16% of those unmet needs were for transitional housing. In other words, over 6,000 women in a single year were presumably unable to leave their abusive situations due to limited alternative housing. It is important to note that these numbers only reflect the victims who were actually able to interface with domestic violence organizations.

Although financial barriers have been clearly shown to significantly impact the ability of a domestic violence victim to escape abuse, those barriers no longer appear to be given priority by the national Office on Violence Against Women. While “restoring and protecting the economic security of victims of violence” was designated as one of the four priority areas for funding by OVW back in 2013, it is no longer included in the current priority areas for funding by OVW. Since economic insecurity can coerce victims to be placed at risk for abuse again, it is imperative to prioritize financial abuse and economic empowerment when seeking to combat the epidemic of domestic violence in this country.

Tehreem Rehman is an MD/MPH candidate at Yale/Johns Hopkins. She is invested in addressing the impact of adversity and trauma on psychopathology, clinical and community interventions for violence, and the relationship between healthcare provider biases and health inequity. She has previously served as a New York State Certified Crisis Counselor and currently serves as the first student member of the National Physicians Alliance’s Policy Committee.

YWCA’s Week Without Violence is an annual campaign that takes place nationally and communities across the country to end violence in all of its forms and wherever it occurs. As the largest network of domestic service providers in the United States, YWCA is focusing our efforts on ending domestic violence – NOW. Everyday YWCA addresses the root causes and immediate needs associated with domestic violence. As we mark our 20th annual Week Without Violence, we invite you to join us. To learn more visit www.ywca.org/wwv and join the conversation with #EndDVNow.

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