Violence Against Women: Can the Increase in Economic Opportunities For Females Decrease Violence Against Women?

A new article in the Christian Science Monitor cites a recent Justice Department report that concludes partner-to-partner violence dropped 64 percent between 1994 and 2010. While it’s unclear which factors directly impact this stunning trend, it’s safe to speculate that the drop in domestic violence can be attributed to a number of societal changes. Among those changes are the empowerment of women to a position that has reversed their traditional role from homemaker to breadwinner, and much more.

Suzanne Goldberg, director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law says that “there has been an enormous shift in public awareness about domestic violence — the message [to victims] being you are not alone and you can report what is happening to law enforcement.” The message to perpetrators, on the other hand, is that violence against an intimate partner is “not a badge of manhood,” Goldberg adds.

While the progress is rightly celebrated, analysts like Janet Lauritsen, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, point out that not enough has been done to pin point the precise causes of the decrease. Additionally, the report may not count all victims, as the data does not include individuals who are homeless or who live in mental institutions or military barracks.

Moreover, intimate-partner violence (IPV) rates have been stabilizing since 2001. In fact, the Justice report cites that single mothers experienced intimate partner violence at a rate more than 10 times higher than households with married adults with children and six times higher than households with one female only.

The evidence definitely indicates that more needs to be done to prevent IPV, which entails continual verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual mistreatment between partners of all demographics. Joan Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University, speculates that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which passed in the Congress in 1994, is a landmark piece of legislation that “had a direct impact” on reducing IPV. Meier said, “because of VAWA it became more widely understood that this violence is a crime and unacceptable.”         

Not everyone agrees with Ms. Meier. Robert Franklin, spokesperson for Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, writes that VAWA proponents can’t point to any evidence that the legislation decreases the incidence of domestic violence.

Franklin adds that the Justice report “made no reference to VAWA at all, much less credited it with the decline in domestic violence.” Furthermore, the reduced domestic violence rates in the report were just a subset of an overall decrease in violent crime (72 percent) significantly greater than the decline in domestic violence (64 percent), according to Franklin. The last flaw of VAWA that Franklin points out is that the rate of domestic violence by women against men fell down right in line with that by men against women. Yet, VAWA provides virtually no services to male victims or female perpetrators, and the proponents fail to explain why.

Dr. Angela Moore Parmley of the U.S. Department of Justice confirms Franklin’s argument, quoted, “We have no evidence to date that VAWA has led to a decrease in the overall levels of violence against women.” 

Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (S.A.V.E), an organization that tracks domestic violence policy, calculates that less than 2 percent of VAWA funding goes to help male victims or female perpetrators despite the fact that 50% of victims are men. Franklin says that social science on domestic violence has long revealed that approximately half of domestic violence is reciprocal, which means that one partner hits and the other hits back.

Franklin cites a study for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which says that in about 70% of reciprocal cases, it was the woman who hit first and the man retaliated. Combining this statistic with the fact that women are about twice as likely as men to be injured in domestic violence incidences leads Franklin to conclude that “one of the most important things we can do to protect women is teach them ‘don’t hit first.’”

According to Franklin, the bill and current law ignore male victims and female perpetrators, so domestic violence will continue and more tax dollars will be put to waste unless VAWA is reformed. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-V.), in filing his VAWA reauthorization bill earlier this month, mirrored Franklin’s sentiment:

"A victim is a victim is a victim. We should stop setting up standards that say we will have one standard of law enforcement for one group of victims but not for another.”

Looking at Franklin’s argument leads me to conclude that despite speculation, there is no real evidence that points to VAWA directly impacting the reduction of IPV in the U.S. So what is impacting the reduction?

A November 2012 study in the Journal of Criminology, cited in the CS Monitor article, provided evidence that the risk of domestic violence is reduced in communities where per-capita levels of police and social services were relatively high, regardless of whether or not those places have mandatory arrest laws in domestic violence disputes. It makes sense then, that cuts to police departments and social services can result in an increase of IPV victims. But that’s not the only factor playing a role.

Beginning with the women’s movement in the 1970s, domestic violence has increasingly been recognized as a public issue. This recognition has resulted in growing public and private initiatives to combat domestic violence and after over two decades of effort, the rate of domestic violence does appear to be declining, and economic models of domestic violence seem to make the most sense in explaining the decline.

Economic models predict that violence against women will decline as women’s alternatives outside of their relationships improve. One way this has been done is through the contribution of increased availability of shelters and services from federal, state, and local governments, as well as numerous nonprofit groups.

While these programs and services provide domestic violence victims with short-term alternatives, improved economic status (through increased educational attainment, for example) can be cited as the cause for more women being able to achieve long-term self-sufficiency. If women are able to support themselves, they are less likely to stay in an abusive relationship. Economic equality can therefore be viewed as a vital contributor to the decrease in domestic violence.

This theory coincides with evidence that poor, young, minority women are more likely to be victims of IPV given that these women have the fewest alternatives outside of their relationships. Women with more alternatives are also more likely to use them rather than resort to killing their husbands. So, the economic empowerment and community support for women has actually been a very good thing for men too.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker explains why “feminism has been very good for men” with regard to domestic violence. Since the beginning of the Second Wave Women’s Movement, which began in the early 1960s, “the chance that a man would be killed by his wife, ex-wife, or girlfriend has fallen six fold,” according to Pinker.

A Forbes article titled “Women’s economic power decreases domestic violence against both genders” goes on to further explain the reasons for the decline in domestic violence, citing that at least 90% of all people of both genders agreed with the proposition that women should have equal rights in the U.S., China, South Korea, Turkey, Lebanon, and the countries of Europe and Latin American.

Perhaps more interesting, 60% of both sexes in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Pakistan and Kenya also agreed. According to Pinker, a global Gallup survey showed that “even in Islamic countries, a majority of women believe that they should be able to vote as they please, work at any job, and serve in government,” with most of the men in most of those countries also in agreement.