The new video of former Ravens football player Ray Rice brutally assaulting his then fiancée Janay Palmer has spurred a public debate around intimate partner violence. There was shock and disgust at Ray’s sickening actions. There was outrage at the National Football League for their abysmal response. And, of course, there was victim blaming. As an advocate, one of the first questions I hear when I describe my work is: “Why doesn’t she leave?”And it didn’t take long for some to raise questions of why she stayed.
It is important to understand the dynamics of intimate partner violence. Intimate partner violence is insidious. It is not about rage or hatred; it is about power and control over a person. Abusers do everything within their power to dominate the lives of their victims. They isolate them. Deprive them of the resources they would need to be independent. They use intimidation and threats, not only against the victim, but family members, pets and their livelihood – all with the goal of leaving them few options but to stay.
This lack of understanding of the reality victims face has generated a social media response under the hashtag #WhyIStayed in which survivors of violence share the myriad reasons they stayed in abusive relationships. Economic factors played into the stories of many victims. Abusers deliberately control financial resources that are necessary for victims to escape. Abusers hide car keys, slash tires or destroy cell phones so survivors cannot reach out for help. They financially cripple victims by maxing out credit cards and saddling them with debt. They disrupt their ability to work by making them late, or constantly calling and showing up at their workplace, ultimately resulting in job loss. Abusers can also prevent victims from attending or completing school which reduces their future employment prospects. Victims may rely on an abuser for health insurance to cover needed medications for illnesses or disease. Victims often have to choose between being unable to provide food and shelter for their children and their own personal safety. Finances strongly influence the decisions victims make.
WOW’s research underscores the impact economic insecurity has on the ability of victims to be independent. A single parent in America needs on average $2,624 per month to cover the average cost of their basic needs – housing, utilities, food, transportation, childcare and health insurance. Note that this doesn’t take into account taxes, necessary personal and household items such as hygiene or cleaning products, or debt. If a person earning minimum wage could only cover housing costs and some food and without the ability to pay for transportation or childcare, this individual would likely lose his or her job. This person wouldn’t be able to make it on their own.
But what about public assistance programs – can’t they help? In short, no. They often fail to make up the difference. These programs are underfunded and have waiting lists or have eligibility requirements that can prevent victims from accessing them – particularly those who are still married to their abuser. In those cases, spousal income is often taken into consideration when survivors apply for benefits thus making them ineligible for support. Support programs such as shelters and transitional housing programs, legal aid, childcare and transportation assistance are in high demand and have limited resources. A 2010 survey found that nearly 10,000 requests for assistance went unmet. Without some level of economic security to provide for their basic needs options are limited.
So aside from the practical complications and physical dangers of leaving, consider the math. How easy would it be for you to drop everything and leave your partner? Could you afford it? Would you be homeless, without a car or childcare? What other barriers would you face? If we are to help victims escape and recover from the physical, emotional and economic costs of abuse we need to break down the power and control abusers exercise over victims and empower victims with resources and opportunities to achieve independence. This requires a comprehensive systemic approach in which the government, businesses, community groups and citizens work in concert to respond to devastating epidemic that is intimate partner violence. We all have a role to play.