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Hard Times for Women Living on the Edge: Economic Anxieties Send Domestic-Abuse Rates Soaring

Even in good times, life for poor working women can be an obstacle-filled struggle to get by. In an economic crisis, it can be hell.
 
 
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Even in good times, life for poor working women can be an obstacle-filled struggle to get by. In bad times, it can be hell.

Now, throw domestic violence into the mix and the hardships grow exponentially -- as I discovered recently when I talked with "Tyrie" while she was at her job at a child care center in one of New York City's outer boroughs.

"This economy is hitting everybody really hard," the fortysomething woman, originally from Trinidad, tells me. But it's hitting her harder than many. Tyrie is a domestic-violence survivor whose personal suffering has been compounded by the global economic crisis. And she isn't alone.

"Clients are coming in more severely battered with more serious injuries," reports Catherine Shugrue dos Santos of Sanctuary for Families, New York state's largest nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to dealing with domestic-violence victims and their children. "This leads us to believe that the intensity of the violence may be escalating. It also means that people may be waiting until the violence has escalated before they leave."

"Difficult financial times do not cause domestic violence," says Brian Namey from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "But they can exacerbate it. When there are tough financial times, couples can be under greater pressure, have higher stress levels."

In fact, a 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice reported that women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused.

The Domestic Violence No One Notices

When "domestic violence" is mentioned, people usually think of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, but experts say that another form of domestic violence has been on the increase since the global financial meltdown hit. They call it "economic abuse."

It not only goes largely unnoticed by most Americans, according to Shugrue dos Santos, but is "not sufficiently explored in the press." Namey concurs, adding, "Financial abuse is something that may not be on the radar for most people, but it is a serious problem."

Sanctuary for Families points to "Jen," a battered client who came to them last fall, just as the financial crisis was beginning to sweep the country. According to its staff, she represents an ever more typical case.

Speaking of her partner, she describes her dilemma: 

"Sometimes I think it would be easier just to go back to him. I know that he could possibly kill me but ... when we lived with him, he always had the refrigerator full, and I never had to worry about what my baby was going to eat or what we were going to wear. It's just really hard to watch my baby live like this. Sometimes I don't think it's worth it."

Jen is one of an increasing number of women caught between violence in the home and the violence of being penniless, powerless and alone in the world.

One way in which economic abuse occurs, Shugrue dos Santos explains, is when "as part of the power and control dynamic, the batterer tries to exert control over the finances of the family. We talk to many women, and even if they're the primary breadwinners in the family, they end up turning that money over to the batterer who either doesn't give them money or gives them an allowance."

There can be little question that the economic crisis is exerting new pressures on victims of domestic violence, exacerbating a whole constellation of interrelated issues that threaten to make their lives more precarious.

 
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