South Africa does not yet understand much about the relationship between poverty and crime. About the closest we ever come is the 'poverty-and-violence-causes-crime' thesis. However, this explanation not only libels the poor and unemployed generally, it is also inadequate. Single mothers and their children, along with elderly women and men, are among the poorest groups in the country. But when last did you lock yourself away in fear of being attacked by hordes of geriatric muggers, or single-mother-headed hijacking and car theft syndicates?
The other bothersome feature of the poverty and unemployment thesis is its near-exclusive application to the behaviour of perpetrators of violence. Rarely is it used to explain people's vulnerability to violence. Yet as the example of domestic violence illustrates, being poor or unemployed may make women very vulnerable to harm or victimisation.
Women typically earn less than men, experience greater rates of unemployment, are concentrated in the lowest-paying sectors of the job market and over-represented amongst the poor of South African society. As a result, finding a man and then sticking to him, is often as much a matter of economic necessity as it is a romantic choice.
Relationships where one partner is economically dependent upon the other can be unequal, perhaps granting one person greater authority over the other in terms of household and financial decision-making. Such situations often lead to domestic violence. Economic dependence upon a man may also limit the options available to abused women. Laying criminal charges which lead to the man's imprisonment may result in the loss of his earnings, imposing serious economic hardships. Leaving is no simple option either. For poor women divorce or ending of the relationship may represent the difference between scraping by or destitution. Divorce or separation may still result in economic difficulties even for women in less precarious situations. US research found that divorce typically lowered a woman's standard of living by an average of 73% while typically raising a man's by an average of 42% (unfortunately no comparable data is available for South Africa).
Placing people in situations where they are expected to choose between living in abusive circumstances, or circumstances of economic hardship, is a form of coerced decision-making. As things currently stand women can expect little or no state aid in this regard. Previously women could obtain some relief through the state maintenance grants – although access to these grants was controlled in a racially discriminatory fashion. These maintenance grants are in the process of being phased out. In their place are the child support grants for children under 7 introduced some months ago. These new grants do away with the racially discriminatory nature of the earlier grants, but do not address the problem of women's economic dependence upon men – nor do they provide an adequate safety net, a failure even more distressing in light of the Department's unspent poverty alleviation budget.
Preventing and dealing with domestic violence is very much a matter of economics. While improved policing and effective prosecution of cases is important, so is attention to patterns of employment or pay differentials between men and women. The economics of domestic violence demand that we address economic disparities between women and men and challenge the state to provide far more financial assistance to women than it currently does.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 12 March 2000.