Economic independence refers to one means by which women may escape and survive abusive relationships. It is related to the ways in which money or financial assets may be used as a tool of coercive control by batterers against women. The financial status of women in terms of employment and wages, savings and investments, government subsidies, and the like is often critical to their decisions regarding abusers and abusive relationships. Women with greater financial independence are in a better position to survive, find safety, and provide for themselves and their children during and after abusive relationships. Many women feel coerced into staying in abusive relationships because they are, or have been made to be, financially dependent upon their partners. The following sections discuss the various tenets of economic (in)dependence: the role of financial abuse in battering and women’s attempts to leave abusive relationships; connections among battering, poverty, homelessness, and welfare reform; and the effects of battering on women’s employment and employability.
Economic Abuse As A Dynamic Of Battering
Woman battering revolves around power and coercive control that batterers exert over their victims in various ways. One of the more common ways in which power and control is accomplished involves isolating a woman from any social outlets that could legitimize and assist her with her victimization. Preventing her from attending family gatherings, meeting with friends, attending church, and/or finding or going to work, through threats, manipulation, harassment, physical force, and/or injury, are common tactics. Moreover, in many abusive relationships, the batterer controls the flow of household money and may be the sole wage earner, placing the woman at his mercy for financial support. This is particularly effective when women are already disadvantaged financially due to disability, age, immigration status, drug/alcohol addiction, or criminal record, and reliant on public subsidies (e.g., welfare, social security disability and/or income). Even in instances where women are working outside of the home, batterers may order them to turn over their paychecks or harass them at work so much that they constantly lose or quit their jobs. Likewise, violence to and destruction of household items, particularly those belonging to the victim, and marital or couple assets are common forms of abuse. Property damage is not only an expression of an abuser’s control but also extremely hurtful to a woman’s economic standing.
Economic abuse often continues after a woman terminates an abusive relationship as well, when the batterer uses his economic standing to continue harassing and stalking the woman as a form of separation assault. This is particularly effective in the legal system, which can be extremely time consuming and expensive, when restraining order, divorce, and child visitation, custody, and/or support proceedings go on unnecessarily for months or even years because of investigations, continuances, extensions, unnecessary pleadings, and reneging of agreements. Because of their greater economic positioning in comparison to battered women, who are less likely to afford high quality, ongoing legal representation, abusers usually stand a better chance of retaining attorneys who are willing to work on such court proceedings for a long time.
While many battered women do eventually leave their abusers, such decisions are often difficult and risky. Not only may they face their batterers’ retaliation, but they are also likely to face the grave concern about how to survive financially. Many are forced to return to their abusers because of economic hardship upon separation. This is most likely the case when a woman has dependent children.
Poverty, Homelessness, And Welfare
Fleeing abusive relationships often translates into poverty and a high probability of homelessness for battered women. Many are forced to rely on welfare subsidies as their only or primary source of income, at least temporarily. In this way, there is a very strong connection among poverty, homelessness, welfare receipt, and battering. Indeed, the majority of poor and homeless women have suffered from battering; financial struggles upon leaving their abusers are paramount in their situations.
However, welfare subsidies have been substantially eroded since the mid-1990s with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Provisions in the law have encouraged recipients to marry, mandated the establishment of paternity in cases where benefits are being used to support children, and placed time limits on receipt of benefits. Such provisions work in opposition to battered women’s needs. While PRWORA provides an exemption from the time limits for domestic violence victims, it seems that these exemptions are not regularly made available to women. It appears that many women do not know that they may request them. Moreover, states vary in their policies regarding implementation of the exemptions, such that welfare case workers may not be required or encouraged to offer them to their clients. So while welfare is a primary option for women without alternative means of economic support, it is not always a very desirable one. Comparisons have been made between the regulation, monitoring, and coercive control of batterers and that of the welfare state. In this way, one form of economic dependency is exchanged for another.
Seeking and maintaining employment can be extremely important for battered women on several fronts. Earning wages, even if they are taken by an abusive partner, may open doors for women socially, in ways that might allow them access to helpful resources they would not otherwise have. Being employed also allows for the possibility of saving money that may be used upon leaving an abusive situation. For those who are able to maintain control of their wages, the process of leaving is often made more expedient and effective because of the economic independence provided by employment. Even in low-wage jobs, women may emotionally benefit from knowing they are employable, and thus feel more confident about their chances of financial survival upon termination of an abusive relationship. Women in higher-wage jobs may not only have the financial resources to move a far distance from their abusers; they may also, if they are highly educated and marketable, have a better chance of being able to reestablish their careers in another location. Moreover, such women may also be able to afford legal representation comparable to those of their ex-partners and thus increase their standing in postseparation court proceedings.
Regardless of the importance of employment, many battered women are not able to look for or maintain work because of the physical injuries, long-term debilitations, or psychological effects of abuse, including depression and lowered self-esteem. This in turn contributes to women’s social isolation, which reinforces their partners’ power and control. Retaining employment often comes at the cost of work-related harassment and stalking by the abuser, including but not limited to physical assaults immediately prior to a work shift or during work breaks, constant phone calls or email messages throughout the workday, and destruction of work-related documents. In the most dire of circumstances, women, and sometimes their coworkers, may be stalked and attacked at the workplace.
Only recently has the connection been made between woman battering and workplace violence. Employers have been slow at recognizing the specific needs of battered women in the workplace, often seeing battered women as unreliable workers and as liabilities to the organization rather than as in need of help. These women are hard pressed to meet the demands of their jobs as well as negotiate abusive relationships and the consequences thereof—medical attention, counseling, legal proceedings, and the demands of single parenthood. Employers need to weigh the women’s frequent tardiness, absenteeism, sick leave, personal leave, and extended vacation requests against the importance of their maintaining employment. Consequently, battered women may lose their jobs, be demoted, or resign due to injuries or concerns about safety. Their abusers, even when the relationship has ended, are likely to be opposed to, jealous of, and threatened by their employment. Despite the struggles involved with working, battered women who work fare better in establishing some level of financial independence, which is likely to lessen the effectiveness of their abusers’ control tactics as well as increase their chances of being able to escape violence and provide for themselves over the long term.
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