Violence, poverty and a male dominated government

By Jane Gilmore

There’s a connection between poverty and violence. Not necessarily a causal link, but certainly a correlation.

Poverty makes women more vulnerable to the coercive control that so often leads to violence. It also makes leaving dangerous relationships much more difficult. Additionally, poverty increases the shame and frustrated rage that can incite men’s violence and need for control. There’s also a cumulative link over time. Children who witness or experience violence understandably have trouble doing well at school. They are also more likely to grow up with physical and mental health problems, which in turn, makes them more vulnerable both to poverty and to recreating violence as adults.

And so, the cycle continues.

Emily’s* ex-husband abused her for years. She says lack of money was one of the reasons she couldn’t escape. “That ‘why didn’t you leave’ question, it’s funny, the only people who have ever asked me that are people who don’t have to worry about money. Even when you try to explain it to them, they just don’t get it. They can’t understand what it does to you. I didn’t have any money because he wouldn’t let me get a job. Even if I’d tried, no one would have hired me. I was a mess. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t sleep. I was shaking all the time and my memory was shot to pieces. So, I couldn’t pay rent and bond or get a car or pay for food. It takes weeks to get Centrelink payments and you can’t apply unless you’ve already left.” In addition to her fear that she would not be able to support herself and her children, Emily was terrified of legal fees. “He told me he’d spend every cent he had on lawyers to make sure I’d never see my kids again and I couldn’t risk leaving them alone with him. I wanted to get out, I really did, but everywhere I turned there was so much in my way. It was like trying to jump over 10 meter walls with no legs.”

Before COVID slammed into the Australian economy, more than half the people on unemployment or parenting payments were living in poverty and 95 percent of parenting payment recipients were women. Recent research by ACOSS and UNSW found just under 45 percent of children of single mothers were living in poverty, which is “a major contributor to our high child poverty rate”.

Despite the tabloid myths, single mothers are not carelessly having babies to cash in on welfare. Most of them are women who have left unhappy or even abusive relationships. One in three Australian marriages end in divorce and almost half of those involve children under 18. The financial blow of divorce is much more severe and lasts much longer for women than for men, reflecting the triple-punch effect of the 40 percent gender pay gap, the disproportionate burden of women’s unpaid labour and the often ignored train wreck of unpaid child support payments.

We already know women are suffering more economic disadvantage and violence since the pandemic started. Again, the effects of this are cumulative and will not simply disappear when a vaccine is found. Which makes it all the more important that government policy addresses the entwined issues of women’s economic insecurity and their vulnerability to men’s violence.

The lead up to tonight’s budget gives little hope that the current federal government will give serious consideration to either of these issues. Scott Morrison, Australia’s Minister for Toothless Announcements, promised $150 million in emergency funding for domestic violence services overwhelmed by demand at the beginning of the pandemic. Those funds are on a slow drip feed and frontline services are still desperately underfunded. The Morrison government this week also re-announced the $60 million Safe Places initiative that will provide for 6,500 women and children escaping men’s violence (according to the 2016 Personal Safety Survey, over 51,000 women experience violence from a current partner “some, all or most of the time”). This announcement was also re-announced in February 2019 after being announced in November 2018, because announcing help for women in danger appears to matter more than actually helping them.

The expected $158 billion in tax cuts that will almost exclusively benefit rich men and the $1.2 billion in support for apprenticeships that will largely benefit young men holds out little hope that there will be any real support for women in tonight’s budget. This is disappointing but not surprising in a government that is almost 75 percent male and is led by a man who has expressed his fear that lifting women up might push men down.

Without intervention, the deadweight of women’s poverty will drag more women into the hands of violent men. It will keep them there and transfer to their children. The cycle will widen and deepen under a government that punishes poor people by entrenching them in poverty while rewarding the wealthy by making it easier to accumulate more wealth. This outcome is not inevitable. Changes to government policy could halt, even reverse, the trend toward rising wealth inequality and it’s deeply engrained gendered outcomes. But that would require governments to make women and children’s safety a genuine priority, rather than an announceable public relations exercise.

Tragically for all of us, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.

*Not her real name

Jane Gilmore was the founding editor of The King’s Tribune. She is now a freelance journalist and author, with a particular interest in feminism, media and data journalism and has written for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Daily Telegraph, The Saturday Paper and Meanjin, among many others. Jane has a Master of Journalism from the University of Melbourne, and her book FixedIt: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media was published by Penguin Random House in 2019.

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