For many in this movement to end rape and address the intersecting, crosscutting, and causal factors that perpetuate it, a government shutdown is not just a government shutdown. For us, it is yet another extortion of assets — an extortion of resources from those who are often, if not consistently, financially vulnerable.
It isn’t just furloughed government workers who are cut off from resources they need to survive. The people next door, people in our own families who count on programs like WIC and other federal entitlements, are left vulnerable. When we have no resources, we don’t eat. When we don’t eat we are forced to make false choices between milk for our babies, food for ourselves, or sex we don’t really want. We are forced to decide between freedom and going back to an abusive home. It’s the difference between paying for a bus ride and walking home 10 miles in the middle of the night. We are no longer secure, and safety is fleeting as our circumstances.
I can’t help but think back to a conversation some sisters and I had about a year ago. The subject was “What does poverty mean to me?” It was a Saturday afternoon. A group of black women sat sipping wine and leaning back in our chairs, while others reached for another plate of roast chicken, home cooked rice and kale salad. We were in a house we claimed as our meeting space: part-living room, part-museum, part-creative space, a place many of us came to cry, rant, rejoice, or just sit still.
One woman began: "It means watching my best friend go on date after date with anyone, anywhere, anytime and then do anything, if you know what I mean, as long as he paid for that meal so she could eat that day, and have leftovers for tomorrow.”
Another said, “To me poverty means having to ask my friends for unused medicine, because I can’t afford the money it would cost to take care of this infection.” Voice after voice, women spoke in turn: “Poverty means not being able to roll out of bed most mornings because I can’t afford a therapist;” “It means still not being able finish my college degree because the inside of a classroom is triggering;" “Getting beat up regularly and not even thinking about leaving;” “Being out on the streets while my mom lives in a two-story, four-bedroom house where I will never be safe;” “Roaches in my cereal box and no minutes on my cell phone.”
An ongoing survey at Black Women’s Blueprint finds that between 40-60% of black women experience coercive sexual contact across their lifespan. We in the trenches cannot help but make the connection between insecurity, sexual assault, and poverty.
Women of color rank lowest in wealth and economic security. In 2010, a groundbreaking study by the Insight Center for Economic Development, revealed that single black women have one penny of wealth for every dollar of their black male counterparts, and only a tiny fraction of a penny for every dollar of a white women. Black single mothers with children under 18 years have a median net wealth of zero compared to $7,970 of wealth held by white women with children. Among black families, 68 percent of women have no net financial savings and live from paycheck to paycheck. In black communities, we are well aware that more women are employed, and according to Women of Color Policy Network, "consequently community tends to equate income with wealth, measuring economic well-being by the pay one brings home,” no matter how unsustainable.
There is a complex and often cyclical connection between violence against women in black communities and poverty, especially where women’s economic status is concerned. However, we are often taught to think about poverty as a motivating factor for sexual assault and other gender-violence by persons seeking power, because lack of work and money has pushed people to violence.
What we don’t talk about is that poverty actually leaves women and other sexually marginalized persons powerless. According to the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women (VAWNET) poverty increases the risk of being targeted for domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, rape and other sexual assault. We have seen how poverty can make women and children more dependent on others for survival and, therefore, less able to control their safety, to make authentic choices, to provide real consent to sex they actually desire, and to meaningfully address the trauma of violation. In turn, violence can jeopardize women’s economic well-being, often leading to homelessness, unemployment, and interrupted high school or college education, as many college women drop out after a rape.
According to the VAWNET, women with household incomes under $7,500 are twice as likely as the general population to be assaulted. Loss of a job can compound the challenges of economic security and increase the risk of sustained poverty. These socio-economic stressors can undermine a person’s pursuit of education, decreasing their earning potential and economic stability throughout the course of their entire lives. This is especially relevant for black women, who represent a disproportionate number of those living in poverty in cities all over the U.S.
I see rape as a violation of human rights, a crime of violence, and extortion of assets: assets which can include life, health, reproductive choice, financial security, sustained employment, education, identity, social, political and historical assets and in many cases, assets in the form of family and spiritual community.
This government shutdown among other deliberate acts to which we are often subjected without our consent are an extortion of personal and communal resources. The very representatives bent on preventing access to health care coverage for more than 25 million people still get a paycheck during this national crisis.
We know there is a disconnect between Washington and those of us in Flatbush, on Martin Luther King Boulevard, on the streets of Detroit, and in Louisiana; places where if we were to ask sisters what poverty meant to them, the answers would likely be similar to those uttered that Saturday afternoon a year ago.
We know they're playing games with our lives. We have to stop them.