Breaking the Links between poverty and violence against women: A resource guide – The reality of poverty and violence

The Reality of Poverty and Violence

An important step in working with women on poverty and violence issues is to enhance our understanding of their impact in women's lives and how the interplay between the two presents barriers to women's efforts to create better lives for themselves and their children.

This publication cannot claim to represent all women's experiences or to have captured all of the dimensions of poverty and violence. However, the authors crafted the analysis and viewpoints captured here to provide a context for the approaches, strategies and fact sheets that follow.

Living with Poverty

There is no official definition of poverty in Canada and this issue continues to be the subject of much debate. Poverty is generally understood, and will be for the purposes of this Guide, as a situation where a person or household does not have adequate financial resources to meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. In addition to this economic-based understanding, we can add that social policy advocates have advanced a relative definition of poverty, arguing that to be poor is to be distant from the mainstream of society and to be excluded from the resources, opportunities and sources of subjective and objective wellbeing which are readily available to others (Canadian Council on Social Development 2001, 2).

While there is ongoing debate about how Canada defines and gathers statistics about poverty, as the fact sheets presented in this Resource Guide show, poverty is a reality for a large number of Canadian women. Despite improvements in women's earnings and incomes relative to men's, women form the majority of the poor in Canada.

Poverty rates for women and men have dropped somewhat since the recession times of the early 1990's (statistics for this section are drawn from a secondary source: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women 2005). Nevertheless, in 2004, 2.4 million (one in seven) Canadian women were living in poverty compared to 1.9 million men. And as governments across Canada cut funding to social services and other programs, we are seeing the depth of this poverty worsening.

Managing on a very low income is like a 7-day-a-week job from which there is no vacation or relief. Poverty grinds you down, body and soul.

Source: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (2005), p.4.

Of all Canadian women who live in poverty today, female lone-parent families are especially vulnerable: 51.6% of lone parent families headed by women are poor. There is also an over-representation of women who are seniors, women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, and immigrant women and visible minority women (see Fact Sheets for more detailed information on these groups of women). These women also face additional barriers - they are often subject to gender discrimination and racism, and in the case of women with disabilities, to a lack of respect and understanding of their physical and mental abilities.

If you don't get enough money, how do you look after your child's health, like their teeth and their everything, and then you want them to be in society, well if they're not looking like part of society, nobody accepts them.

Source: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (2007), p.5

Lack of affordable, safe housing is a major problem for low-income women and their children. In urban and rural areas this can mean living in sub-standard housing. Many women and children are forced into housing they can afford, which frequently means rundown apartments with dishonest or abusive landlords, in high-crime areas. Women who experience additional barriers of disability, racism and discrimination based on age or immigration status often have to deal with unique hardships in their search for adequate housing.

For low-income women, the constant struggle to make ends meet is extremely stressful, wearing them down emotionally, undermining their self-confidence, and making it more difficult to be healthy and provide a positive environment for their children. Poverty is recognized in Canada as a key factor in determining physical and mental health. People with lower incomes tend to have shorter lives and more health problems (Phipps 2003: 1).

Living in poverty presents women with multiple challenges. These challenges include navigating the welfare system, finding and keeping a job, finding adequate housing and childcare, and dealing with the stigmas and stares associated with being poor. Many are caught in a seemingly hopeless cycle in which the physical and emotional costs of poverty make it difficult to meet exis ting challenges and make changes in their lives.

Living with Violence

This Guide recognizes the many forms of gender-based violence affecting women including physical and sexual assault, psychological and emotional abuse, neglect, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and financial abuse. Large numbers of Canadian women continue to experience violence and abuse every year, despite our awareness of violence issues and concerted programs to prevent it. According to Statistics Canada's 2004 General Social Survey, 653,000 women (or 7%) reported that they had been physically or sexually assaulted by a spousal partner during the previous five years (Canada, Statistics Canada 2006a: 17). During this same time period, 18% of women reported experiencing emotional or financial abuse (Canada, Statistics Canada 2007, 18).

Aboriginal and young women are at particularly high risk of violence. Rates of violence against Aboriginal women are more than three times higher than for non-Aboriginal women, and the rates have increased over the past five years (Canada, Statistics Canada 2006a, 65). Rates of violence are the highest among young women. For example, young women under 25 show the highest rates of sexual assault and criminal harassment (p. 36).

People who experience family violence are at greater risk of mental health disorders and problems. Moreover, their general health and well-being are likely to be affected in both the short and long term. They may be injured, maimed, or neglected. They may adopt negative coping techniques that contribute to or worsen medical conditions.

Source: Canada, Stop Family Violence, 2003. p.4.

Violence has devastating short and long-term effects on the physical and mental well-being of women and their children. Health consequences of intimate partner violence include, for example, injuries, infertility, depression and anxiety (World Health Organization 2002: 101). Women who experience violence may suffer from serious physical or psychological trauma which makes the daily challenges of life - caring for children, holding down a job, educational pursuits and skills upgrading - much more difficult.

In addition to concerns shared by all abused women (such as concerns for health, physical safety and security), Aboriginal women, women with disabilities, and immigrant and visible minority women experience systemic barriers that further compound their situation, as they encounter problems related to stereotyping, racial discrimination, social isolation, service access and marginalization (Canadian Council on Social Development 2001, 36).

Women living in poverty also experience isolation and feelings of powerlessness and face many challenges to maintaining good health. The similar effects that violence and poverty have on women have led some to conclude that to live in poverty is a form of societal abuse.

Living with Poverty and Violence

Poverty and violence play a kind of toxic dance in women's lives. Poverty marginalizes women, increasing their risk of victimization, while violence also isolates women, as the mental and physical effects grind away at women's sense of well-being, limiting what is possible.

The combined effects of poverty and violence create a formidable barrier to women's equality, well-being and full participation in society. Both reflect unequal relationships of power which result in the systemic discrimination of women. This systemic discrimination means that women are less likely to get well-paying jobs and to meet their needs for decent housing, education, child-care and health services.

These effects are most pronounced where rates of violence and poverty are highest, for example in Aboriginal communities. In some Aboriginal communities, particularly those on-reserves, women who have experienced abuse report having little access to relevant information and resources (Canada, National Clearinghouse on Family Violence 2008, 18). There is often a lack of resources, in general, and of family violence intervention and prevention services in particular, and few trained Aboriginal staff available to provide support (p. 28).

The experiences of women from other communities also show connections between economic dependence and violence. Rural-based women living on low incomes, for instance, find it difficult to leave an abusive relationship or to access counselling support. Services may be a long distance away; long distance telephone calls may be beyond their means. They may not have a car and may live in areas that do not have alternative public transport. Relying on neighbours can compromise their privacy, and there may be a lack of confidentiality generally in their home community.

Far from extended family supports, immigrant and refugee women are often dependent on their husbands financially as well as in terms of their official status in Canada. For this reason, these women face additional challenges when contemplating leaving an abusive relationship. Unfamiliarity with Canadian law and social services and/or with the English language can create additional layers of marginalization. Immigrant women may also face difficulties in finding employment because their foreign credentials and experience are often not recognized in Canada.

I did not want to say anything because I didn't know what they would say to police and the police would send me back to my country. I went back to him. No friends, no income, no work permit, no housing, no social assistance and pregnant. He's the one feeding me, the one who is going to process my paper.

Source: Mosher (2004). p.73

Often the only cushion between a woman with a disability and poverty (either on social assistance or poverty on minimum wage) is the financial support of family. Yet dependence on family is a demeaning and can even be a dangerous place for women, especially women with disabilities. Battering, incest and other forms of abuse against women with disabilities are endemic and often unrecognized by support services (Meister 1990, 42). Moreover, many support services are inaccessible.

I would have been on my own but I had to find, really I had to find a guy to live with or a guy to take care of me. That's what I had to do. So I thought, you know, I made my best choice. I obviously didn't make the best choice but I made the best choice I could at the time.

Source: Mosher (2004). p.19

Our Challenge: Ending Poverty and Violence

Individual women are not responsible for poverty or violence. Poverty and violence exist because of inequalities in our society. Hence, we are collectively responsible for ending both poverty and violence against women, goals that will take a long time to achieve.

Violence against women is costly not only to its victims, but to society as a whole and these costs continue to rise. A 1995 study of all types of violence against women, the most recent of its kind, found that the resulting direct medical costs totaled $1.1 billion (Canada, Stop Family Violence 2002, 7). At the same time, cuts to social services and challenges in the health and educational sectors are deepening the marginalization of families living below the poverty line. Increasingly, low-income women talk about how the situations they are dealing with are becoming more complex (MacQuarrie 2004, ii-iii).

Where do we go from here?

As a society we need to continue working to set social conditions to support women to get themselves permanently out of a violent situation. This would include the provision of adequate welfare support, access to affordable and safe housing, access to childcare, and access to employment that pays a living wage (Mosher 2004, v).

While these tasks may seem enormous, there are many examples across Canada of groups of women who have attempted to grapple with the multiple effects of poverty and violence for women and have designed programs and strategies that can help. A sample of these initiatives can be found in the Strategies and Initiatives section of this Guide. It is followed by a section which examines approaches to working with women experiencing violence.

Economic independence will make women safe from abuse. With money to survive for her and her kid, this woman has the power to decide her life and to live a better, safer life.

Source: Mosher (2004). p.25

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