"Why Didn't She Just Leave?" Just Got More Complicated

In a country where domestic violence is often hidden away behind closed doors, it’s exploding onto the streets. The question is: what are we, collectively, going to do about it?

Jul 1, 2013 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

Why don’t you just leave him” just got a lot more complicated, courtesy of government wrangling over the budget. With slashes across the board to critically-needed funding, organizations that provide shelter, legal assistance, and other services to victims of domestic violence are being forced to turn them away.

That means that at least some women trying to leave abusive partners are being forced out into the streets, and those numbers are likely to increase as the depth of the spending cuts increases. This should be a matter for national shame, especially since members of the homeless population are especially vulnerable to violent crime: by forcing victims of domestic violence into the streets, the US government is effectively condemning them to further abuse, up to and including murder.

Women already die as a direct result of domestic violence; roughly 33% of murders of women are committed by domestic partners. Now, domestic violence and cuts to services are going to be an indirect cause of death, and those women will be dying in the streets as well as their homes.

What happens when staying could have fatal consequences, but so could leaving?

How does that change the nature of the conversation about the limited “Why didn’t she just leave?” attitude prevalent among so many people who seem to think that domestic violence could be solved if women would just stop whining and get out?

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Photo credit: Julie Jordan Scott.

Thanks to the sequester, social services across the US are in a tailspin. The most vulnerable populations in the country are bearing the brunt of these cuts, including children, seniors, disabled people, and women, with heavy racial and class intersections to compound the issue. Low-income children of color, for example, are losing access to important services they need to succeed, while disabled people are being faced with funding cuts that force them to make choices like eating or paying for medication, lying in their own feces for hours or paying an aide and potentially losing their housing.

Domestic advocates have fought long and hard for decades to have domestic violence recognized as a legitimate social issue and to direct funding in the direction of organizations working on the provision of services for families affected by domestic violence. Their fight has been critical for the lives and wellbeing of millions of women and children, and it’s being undone by the work of lawmakers doing everything from slashing funding to decriminalizing domestic violence.

This interacts dangerously with the shattered US economy. In times of economic hardship, domestic violence tends to increase, and can become more vicious. Women may be especially vulnerable in relationships where they are struggling to survive because they aren’t bringing in income and have limited skills that make it difficult to seek their own work and become independent. The National Network to End Domestic Violence notes that in addition to funding cuts across the board, states are also experiencing declines in private donations to support domestic violence organizations.

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Photo credit: Franco Folini.

The effects are visible across the country:

In 2011, the Domestic Violence Hotline was unable to answer 87,000 phone calls that came in. In 2009, 167,069 women seeking shelter were turned away. In just one day in 2011, 10,581 women trying to find a place to stay were told there was no space for them. Forty-three percent of shelters have reported a decrease of services offered. (source)

In individual states, piecemeal cuts to services include slashes to funding not just at shelters, domestic violence counseling organizations, and other groups that directly help victims. Cutting welfare, food assistance, housing assistance, medical care, and other social programs has a profound effect on victims of domestic violence by whipping the social safety net right out from under them.

Economic pressures, along with numerous other issues, can be a significant contributor for women struggling to get out of abusive relationships. It’s not uncommon for abusers to occupy the breadwinning role for the household, and to actively discourage their partners from seeking additional employment or job training to develop independent skills.

If women don’t have social services to support themselves when they leave, they’re likely to end up homeless or back in an abusive relationship because no other choices may be available to them. This is a growing issue in a nation where these services are bleeding funds, burning through their reserves, and pleading with private donors for support so they can keep offering services. At the same time, many such groups are cutting services, hours, and clients in order to prevent closure.

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Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

This is a country where it’s more important to address funding shortfalls for air traffic controllers to prevent disruptions to commercial flights than it is to protect women from violence. It is a country where the domino effect of cuts to services is not recognized by the federal government or by many people interested in blaming victims for the traps they’re in. Instead of targeting the lack of government commitment to ending violence against women, some would prefer to continue criticizing women who cannot afford to leave abusive relationships, and who have no resources if they take that first step.

Huge numbers of homeless women report a history of victimization in their lives before they came onto the streets as well as after, and those numbers are likely to grow thanks to the fact that domestic violence victims are being pushed onto the streets.

It’s notable as well that intersectionality could play a key role here: women who have mental illnesses, for example, have a harder time advocating for themselves in abusive relationships and will be even more likely to end up on the street, thus increasing the population of mentally ill homeless people without access to the services they need to manage their mental illnesses. Likewise, the number of homeless female veterans is likely to grow.

In a country where domestic violence is often hidden away behind closed doors, it’s exploding onto the streets. The question is: what are we, collectively, going to do about it?