The cost of living crisis will leave victims of domestic violence “even more vulnerable” and potentially “trap” them with their abuser, campaigners have warned.
Skyrocketing food and fuel bills will be felt by most people over the coming months, but the income squeeze will have a hidden cost for victims of abuse, womens’ groups have warned – especially for those living on the poverty line.
They told The Ferret that the pressures on people’s incomes will mean they feel pressured to stay put, and that abusers may mould the situation to their advantage, by exerting control over their partner’s finances.
Victims of domestic violence rarely have control of their own money. More than 90 per cent are subject to economic abuse, research conducted by Scottish Women’s Aid found, with spending controlled or managed by their abuser.
This lack of access to money is a “huge factor” in affording women and children the chance to escape violence at home. Some are given piecemeal allowances to live on, if any money at all.
While some will struggle to afford to escape, others may live on increasingly punitive sums of money allocated by their abuser – with a number cut off from accessing essentials like fuel altogether.
“When domestic abuse is added into the equation, the injustices multiply and the social and individual costs mount,” the CEO of Scottish Women’s Aid, Martha Scott, told The Ferret.
“A huge factor constraining women’s and children’s choices in resisting domestic abuse is their economic disadvantage.”
Concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on victims have also been felt across the country.
Scotland’s domestic violence rates rose for a fifth year running in 2021, with Police Scotland recording 65,251 incidents of domestic abuse, with cases rising by four per cent.
These numbers are just part of an emerging picture. While many are already feeling the squeeze, the first fuel bill rise, causing prices to jump by 54 per cent, will take effect in April, with another rise scheduled for October.
The pandemic continues to rage on, resulting in the loss of jobs, financial uncertainty, and the loss of thousands of lives. As of 13 February, 13,157 deaths registered in Scotland mentioned Covid-19 as the cause of death.
“The rising costs of fuel and food, the scrapping of the Universal Credit uplift, the continuing costs of the pandemic – all of these come together to leave those experiencing economic abuse feeling trapped and unable to leave an abuser,” Vicky Fobel, head of policy and communications at Surviving Economic Abuse, said.
Two female victims of domestic abuse spoke to The Ferret on condition of anonymity including a woman who asked to be called Fiona. She said money was always an issue for her controlling ex-husband. As full-time carer for her youngest son, Fiona* had no income of her own.
“My husband had the say in every financial decision,” she said. “He did hurt me physically one time when I’d bought some make-up, and he didn’t think I should have spent money on that.
Before long, she didn’t bring up money at all.
“I didn’t argue because I’d learned not to,” she added.
For Sarah*, even heating her home was contingent on her partner’s temper.
“I couldn’t heat the house although I was there all day with three children,” she said. “We had solid fuel heating and it was my husband’s job to chop the wood.
“He did that but then he would leave a fencing panel or an old door or some other obstacle in the way so that I couldn’t get at the dry wood,” she said.
“I came across a letter I’d written to him one time saying that I didn’t want much from him: I just wanted to be warm.”
These experiences show how financial security and safety are “inextricably linked,” Fobel from Surviving Economic Abuse said.
“Women who can’t find £100 at short notice are 3 and a half times more likely to experience abuse,” she told The Ferret.
This financial insecurity is also “the primary reason many women return to an abuser.”
“Even those who manage to leave an abuser may often be left struggling with coerced debt, repaying Universal Credit advances, or paying the legal costs of separation,” she added.
Fiona* relied on a loan from her sister and an advance on her Universal Credit payment to leave her husband.
Even though she’d managed to escape, her relief was marred by the complications of debt.
“We had to survive on food parcels and help from Women’s Aid and my sister because universal credit wasn’t paid at first,” she said.
“I had to pay back a Universal Credit advance at a rate of £85 a month which was a huge chunk out of my payment.
“I had no internet, no phone, no mobile signal. My son was sobbing and wanted us to go home,” she added.
The survivor said she is in a “triple bind” through earnings, universal credit and legal aid.
Because she claims universal credit, she can only keep 35p of every pound earned.
She says it would be better if she could work full-time and come off benefits, but then she would not be entitled to legal aid, which she needs to pursue court action for child custody, and her divorce.
While she has “a lovely flat, good neighbours, and good friends,” the constant financial worries take their toll.
“I find it scary. That’s why I am taking a mindfulness course – to just focus on now. I would like to have a good relationship with my son and to be financially stable. I hope that I will have those things,” she added.
Sarah* has also found it hard to make ends meet, and said that being on Universal Credit is “a huge stress”.
While she knows “there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she said the challenge of being reliant on a payment system which “works on the basis of scaring people with punishments and sanctions” is “bad for my mental health.”
“I’m dealing with emotional trauma and financial worry and the system just adds to it.
Sarah lives in a remote area of Scotland, where jobs are hard to come by.
“There is hardly any work. I work four hours a day to fit around taking the children to school and collecting them.
To fully recover, Sarah said she just “needs a bit of support” to get back on her feet.
“I always think when it feels very hard that it’s nothing compared to when I was trapped, in a black hole and with morbid thoughts,” she added.
Sarah and Fiona’s experience indicate a larger set of financial issues affecting women, whether they are survivors or dealing with the fallout of the cost of living crisis.
The ramifications of entrenched inequalities across work and childcare predominantly affect women, making the entire gender more vulnerable, say campaign groups
“Women’s employment has been badly affected by Covid-19, and women who were already struggling are now under enormous financial pressure as they’re pulled deeper into poverty,” Anna Ritchie Allan, executive director of women’s labour charity Close the Gap, told The Ferret.
“This creates significant risks to women’s financial independence and makes them more vulnerable to economic abuse.”
Living Costs and a Recovery Plan
Close The Gap is among groups in this sector calling on the Scottish Government to make an economic recovery plan for women.
It wants economic safety to be placed “at the heart” of the government’s forthcoming Domestic Abuse Strategy.
Scottish Women’s Aid agrees that the more secure employment women have, the more protection they have from the life-altering damage of economic abuse.
“We need a national economic strategy that prioritises closing the gender pay gap, that makes the paid labour market work for women, that includes the massive care economy in its analysis and planning,” Martha Scott told The Ferret. “There also needs to be adequate investment in childcare.”
“It’s not rocket science, it’s politics done right – if you’re serious about ending domestic abuse and making Scotland fairer and more equal,” she added.
A Scottish government spokesperson said women having access to frontline services dealing with violence and domestic abuse “is vital”.
“Within the first 100 days of this parliament, the Scottish Government provided £5m to rape crisis centres and domestic abuse services to deal with additional pressures that occurred during the pandemic,” a spokesperson said.
“Our domestic abuse offence, which has been heralded as gold-standard legislation, has given more powers to police and courts to punish perpetrators of abuse and protect people at risk.”
It added it will direct £100m over a three-year commitment to tackling violence against women and girls, with £38m pumped into frontline services.
“These crimes have a devastating impact on victims and we continue to encourage all those who experience domestic abuse to report it and seek support,” they added.
Support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline. Call 0800 027 1234
Photo: Laura Dodsworth/Scottish Women’s Aid
This story was published in tandem with The Sunday National on 20 February 2022.