Violence Against Women, The Wage Gap And Homelessness

"The United States is no particular safe haven for women."

09/07/2016 05:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2016
Yuichiro Chino via Getty Images

A recent report from McKinsey & Company, The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in the United States, lists violence against women as one of six primary and structural obstacles to women’s equity in the United States, which continues to score poorly on six of 10 critical areas of women’s equality: leadership and managerial positions, unpaid care work, single mothers, teenage pregnancy, political representation, and violence against women. The report goes further than many similar ones in directly linking gender-based violence to the wage gap.

McKinsey’s estimates that that violence against women in the United States costs roughly $4.9 billion a year in medical expenses, lost work time and productivity and women’s lifetime earnings losses. It’s sad, but true, that despite global gender inequality being the most pervasive and pernicious human rights issue of our time, it might be money, not women, that motivates people with power to pay attention. 

Contrary to popular opinion, the United States is no particular safe haven for women.  The U.S. is squarely in the middle of the global pack when it comes to violence against women.  

The U.S. is squarely in the middle of the global pack when it comes to violence against women.

According to the Department of Justice, one in three American women experience intimate partner violence and one in six will be the victim or attempted victim of sexual assault. Three women a day are killed by men they know.  Seventy-five percent of rape victims (82 percent of juvenile victims are girls. 90 percent of adults are women) know their assailants.

The McKinsey report presents facts about sexual assault the numbers in a jarring way, for every two women in the United States there is one incident of sexual violence.  “There is a direct correlation between violence and the financial piece,” explained Vivian Riefberg one of the report’s authors, commenting on the relationship between violence and broader inequality. This becomes clear when you consider statistics about homelessness.

In terms of women’s ability to work, earn a living, support a family and accumulate wealth for long-term stability, this violence is debilitating. The abuse that so many women live with can constantly interrupt work or school and degrade a person’s chances of getting a job, raises, promotions and benefits. Intimate partner abuse frequently includes deliberate attempts to sabotage women’s economic independence by targeting women’s reputations to specifically hurt them professionally.

According to the Joint Center for Poverty Research at Northwestern University, 25 percent and 50 percent of domestic violence survivors experience job loss related to their abuse. Job loss and the inability to get or keep a new job is a huge problem for the one third of American women who will be assaulted by spouses at some point. When they try and leave, their situations spiral into greater instability and harm. Abusers are skilled at using violence strategically, as one tool among many used to express power and coercive control. Among the most effective of those tolls is financial abuse, which includes a wide range of tactics.

Of the one in three American women who are abused, 38 percent are homeless at some point. 

Of the one in three American women who are abused, 38 percent are homeless at some point.

Between 22 percent and 57 percent of homeless women, depending on the jurisdiction, cite domestic violence and financial vulnerability as the reason they are homeless. One study found that 46 percent of homeless women said that having nowhere to go, and no way to support themselves and their children, meant they stayed in violent relationships.  

At least 50 percent of US states cite domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in Massachusetts, for example, 92 percent of homeless women surveyed had been severely assaulted at some point in their lives: of those, 63 percent had been physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner.

In just one day in 2015, the National Network to End Domestic Violence tracked requests from over 31,500 families seeking help from domestic violence shelters, which, lacking people and funding, were unable to help in more than 12,197 instances. Sixty-three percent of the unmet requests were for places to live. The ability to find safe shelter, and pay for it, is elusive for most women who have primary responsibility for child care and have less, sometimes no, income as a direct result of abuse.

The problem of staying is compounded by the reality that women who are in violent relationships are far more likely to face eviction, making it even less likely that they will seek help from the police, already not an option for women in many communities.

The $4.9 billion a year in losses due to intimate partner violence might make people sit up in a way that the abuse of actual women won’t. As a society, we just don’t care that much. Our tolerance for gender-based tolerance is in fact a dimension of that violence. Much of it is grounded in ignorance, but the remainder is a reflection of cultivated societal denial. 

As is occasionally pointed out, for example, across the United States there are an estimated 1,894 programs to help victims of domestic violence, who are mainly women and children, compared to 5,000 shelters for animals. We make cultural distinctions between animals, whom we consider innocent, and women, who we think of morally sullied, culpable for whatever violence is enacted against them.

The knee-jerk question, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” betrays not only ignorance of how intimate partner violence works, but also sheds lights on a deep-seated distrust of women and disregard for their experiences and needs. It will be a sign of a fundamental shift when the question that jumps to everyone’s lips is, instead, “Why doesn’t he just leave?”

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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