By Sneha Singh
“If it was so bad, why didn’t you just leave?” – A question often thrown at the survivors of domestic abuse or partner violence.
The questions no one bothers to ask them are: Do they know a safe place that they could move to once they leave their partners, without the fear of being stalked? How is their financial situation? Is it good enough to help them and their kids survive on their own? Would they be able to access the necessary help needed to come out of the trauma caused by the emotional abuse?
Structured Violence, Silent Victims and Invisible Homelessness
When social structures or institutions fail to help individuals who are dependent on them to meet their basic needs, it is referred to as structural violence. The substantial paperwork and the meandering system of state-run benefits makes it difficult for the survivor to receive proper help, adding to their trauma. As a result, on most occasions, the victims of partner violence are forced to stay with abusers.
This is not just a violation of the fundamental human needs, but adds to the challenges that the survivors are already dealing with – their mental health, financial burden, substance abuse, etc. The bureaucratic inconsistencies force them back into the life they tried to escape, which not only proves harmful for them but also for their children, who are the silent victims.
Emotional Abuse is Real
The general understanding of violence is often limited to sexual and physical abuse. The emotional trauma gets completely neglected when one talks about domestic abuse. More often it gets so normalised that it is regarded as a routine affair in a household. This is due to the internalisation of power relations which have been set up by the hegemonic structures of patriarchy and class.
The damage that the emotional abuse causes is too intricate for people to see and understand compared to the physical injuries and other evidence of violence that can be easily documented. Adding to it, the legal as well as welfare system, and the cultural beliefs about family, forces women to stay in violent and abusive relationships.
Normalising the violence that takes place within the household comes as a result of the idealisation of one’s home being a safe haven. Joan Scott, a prominent gender historian in her work, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, discusses how gender is not merely an expression of identity but also symbolises a relation of power. This idealisation has also led to women and men routinising the gendered roles and responsibilities within the household, thus the normalisation of violence as being a way of asserting and maintaining that power dynamic.
In many cases, survivors who are isolated from their friends and family by their controlling partners are left with zero confidence to muster the courage to move out. It is not just the fear of finding a safe place, but also the fear of sharing the space with strangers, the mental exhaustion and the recovery from the trauma.
A gender sensitive response is essential to help women move out of an abusive home. While every survivor’s experience would be different, access to housing is one critical factor that enables them to escape that environment. The only way for them to leave the abuser is to find a safe home and if that is denied, the survivors go homeless or choose to stay hidden.
Is the available assistance supporting the individuals in need?
For survivors recovering from the trauma, it is very important that they live in a place where they feel safe and have access to the necessary support and facilities. However, the lack of affordable housing, the discriminatory housing practices and the labyrinthine system of state-run benefits limits housing options for domestic violence survivors and increases their risk of becoming homeless. The policies currently fall short on helping the women meet the basic needs.
A study conducted by Women’s Aid Ireland highlights how women who do not have dependent kids face even more difficulties being accepted by the local housing teams: “The difficulty is if you don’t have children… you have to be able to prove that you are more vulnerable if you become homeless than someone else who is homeless, another single person. So, effectively you have to prove you have mental health difficulties or another reason why you need rehoming,” said one of the respondents during the study.
“I genuinely honestly believe the only people that actually understand domestic violence are the people that have been through it. Obviously, some people choose to learn about it and they choose to understand more. But some people are just so ignorant. They’re like, ‘Oh, well just call the Guards’, or ‘Just do this’ or ‘Just do that’. Whereas it’s not that simple. And that’s what the reaction from the Council has just been: ‘Oh, why don’t you just stay in your mother’s?’. And me going, ‘I can’t stay there’. ‘Oh, well would you rather be on the street or in a B&B in (town)?’. And I was like, ‘But you can’t just say that’. And he said, ‘Well that’s the way it is basically’ – another respondent shared in a study done by Focus Ireland.
The lack of understanding in these cases is just baffling. The assumptions that when a woman has left the abuser, she is out of a dangerous situation, highlights how badly the social structures are setup to handle these situations. Housing, homelessness and domestic abuse are inextricably linked and it is important that they work collaboratively.
In addition, many shelters have policies around not admitting women with mental health or substance-use disorders, only because they lack the capacity and the resources to provide the necessary support. In many countries, there is a limit to the number of days a survivor can stay at a shelter (30-60 days), and if the woman is unable to find alternative housing in that period of time, she may have to leave and return to her abusive partner.
Gender-neutral or Gender-Blind?
The services meant for the domestic violence survivors are often looked though a gender-neutral lens. This means the specific needs and situations are often side-lined. More training, better coordinator and integration of responses to women survivors facing homelessness are essential.
Ensuring trauma and gender-informed training, access to therapy, support and responses, affordable housing and most importantly, awareness on the issue are the few ways the state can ensure domestic abuse survivors do not have to go back to the home which is not a safe haven for them.
The survivors’ aid should be real and accessible, not a mythical unicorn.