“Women survive violence then have to survive on peanuts, we have nothing, no furniture, no food, no recourse to public funds, we need money to live on, otherwise we are either destitute or die… Does the government understand we are living on nothing?”(1)
On International Peace Day (21 September) we urge the UK government to reverse welfare reform policies that are having such a detrimental impact on women who experience domestic abuse on their journeys to safety, dignity, respect and freedom from abuse.
One in three women will experience domestic abuse or sexual violence at some point. Last year in Wales, 14,129 survivors of abuse were supported by our national network of domestic abuse services, including 1,596 women and 1,221 children who were forced to escape to refuges for safety and support.
That women disproportionately experience such violence, abuse, regulation and control, usually by men they know, is a manifestation of unequal power relations, a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men, and an obstacle to achieving equality and human rights. As such, it is not inevitable and can be prevented with the necessary political will and resources.
Yet UK government policies are instead undermining the rights of abused women and children, and forcing survivors to make dangerous choices between poverty and safety.
Some of the most concerning policies are the child tax credit limits for two children with an exemption for those conceived through rape, the roll-out of Universal Credit as single household payments that increase dependency on a partner, and the benefit cap which reduces the overall financial assistance women can receive.
Where is the respect for women, if they are being forced to disclose that their third child was conceived as a result of rape or coercive control, so that their benefits are not capped? Even then, government policy requires a woman to leave the abuser to be eligible for the exemption, revealing a complete lack of understanding of the life-threatening risks facing women and children who leave.
Where is the dignity being afforded women subject to Universal Credit, which requires payments be made into one account per household each month, and in doing so only serves to support and perpetuate financial abuse, already a common feature in many relationships. Last year, 38% of women who accessed specialist support experienced financial abuse(2) and across Wales, one in seven adults have reported experiencing financial abuse in a current or past relationship.(3)
Where is the access to safety for women subject to coercive control, having their spending monitored, debts built up in their name, or being forced to steal by the abuser. Women have told us about perpetrators withholding money and controlling the purchase of sanitary products and clothes, which impacts on their health, well-being, their confidence, and leaves them and their children with nothing other than a foodbank to get by.
The benefit cap disproportionately affects lone parent families, of whom over 90 percent are women. By reducing the overall sum of financial assistance someone can receive at a time when survivors need support the most, this means women think twice before leaving the abuse. Leaving with nothing other than the clothes you have on also makes it difficult to return to work or find stable employment, and can take you away from your support network – which is especially important for lone parents in need of childcare.
Ultimately, women experiencing domestic abuse are left with a stark choice: leave and face increasing hardship, poverty and homelessness, or stay with the abuser. Things are even worse for Black and minority ethnic women who experience multiple disadvantage and discrimination because of their immigration status. Women who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ have no access to money to live on nor are they easily able to access a place of safety through a refuge or supported housing, to escape the abuse.
Just like domestic abuse, these welfare reform policies are the result of deliberate, intentional behaviour which exacerbates women’s experiences of financial abuse, their dependency on the abuser, and on their ability to access services designed to offer protection, safety and support.
That is why we are calling on the UK Government to be accountable for their actions, to uphold the rights of women and children survivors and to reverse these welfare reform policies. Until then, women’s rights, safety and dignity across Wales, and the UK, remains in jeopardy.
Written by Eleri Butler, CEO, Welsh Women’s Aid
1. Survivor, quoted in Rehman Y (2016) ‘Are you listening and am I being heard?’ Welsh Women’s Aid
2. Welsh Women’s Aid annual membership report “2016/17 Data from Specialist Services in Wales”
3. Sharp-Jeffs, N, (2016) Money Matters: http://www.refuge.org.uk/files/Money-Matters.pdf