Researchers and policymakers increasingly recognize the strong, bidirectional links between women’s economic insecurity and their experiences of intimate partner violence—for example, the recently introduced Escaping Violence Payment, which provides those leaving a violent relationship up to $5,000 in financial assistance. While this is a welcome initiative, focusing on women’s economic wellbeing at a single moment in time is insufficient for understanding and ameliorating the full impact that violence has on women’s lives. In this paper, we argue for looking beyond poverty towards the ultimate cause and consequence of violence against women: women’s unfreedom.
Analyzing six waves of data from the 1989-1995 birth cohort of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (n = 8,629 women), we test associations between women’s experiences of violence and economic hardship growing up, and their intimate partner violence victimization and unfreedom in young adulthood. To capture women’s unfreedom, we create a measure of multidimensional disadvantage. This incorporates information on women’s deprivations in material, employment, education, health, and social domains.
We find that the negative impacts of childhood violence and economic hardship are already visible as women emerge into adulthood at age 18. The gap between those who grew up with violence and those who grew up without it widens further as women age through their twenties. We also find that women are far more likely to be the victim of intimate partner violence in young adulthood if they experienced violence in childhood, and when women do experience intimate partner violence, their levels of multidimensional disadvantage further increase. Last, we find that cumulative experiences of violence result in a substantially increased risk of women being in deep or very deep disadvantage. For example, women who grew up with violence and economic hardship and reported intimate partner violence multiple times throughout their twenties are more than thirty times as likely as their non-victimized peers to be in very deep disadvantage.
Our findings reinforce what a destructive and pervasive impact violence has on women’s lives. The effects of violence against women are multifaceted, and multifaceted interventions are therefore required. Providing one-off economic support is unlikely to be enough if women are not also supported in terms of their mental and physical health, housing, and employment. Further, we cannot wait until the moment of crisis to intervene. Women must be provided with numerous “off-ramps” from the road to unfreedom at all stages of their lives. Crucially, prevention must go hand in hand with response, and broad social changes to achieve gender equality are therefore required.