LETTER | In August, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, conducted a country visit to Malaysia. It may have seemed an unlikely choice, given Malaysia’s significant economic growth in recent years and low official poverty rate, and yet it was evident that lurking below a rosy narrative was a darker reality for millions of Malaysian residents.
One often overlooked aspect of poverty is its relation to domestic violence. Although domestic violence can happen to persons from any background, poverty and domestic violence are mutually reinforcing. To break the cycle of domestic violence and poverty, the government must allocate resources for domestic violence shelters and support services, as well as social services for individuals in need.
During Alston’s visit to Kuala Lumpur, the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) hosted a discussion on the relationship between the two social phenomena of poverty and domestic violence, giving survivors of domestic violence who came from poverty a platform to share their lived realities with the special rapporteur.
During the discussion with Alston, one survivor, Siti, shared her experience of living in poverty since the day she was born. After Siti’s first husband passed away, she remarried, only to find out that her husband abused drugs and alcohol and robbed to earn a living. In the rural area where Siti was from, poverty is a norm as is substance abuse.
Siti’s husband abused her regularly, and because of both the poverty and the domestic violence, Siti’s daughter dropped out of school when she was 14 years old. After Siti and her children came to WAO for shelter, Siti struggled to get a job that paid enough to support herself and her children. Siti’s daughter has given up hope that she can succeed academically and now aims to get vocational skills training to help bring her family out of poverty.
Siti’s experience exemplifies how poverty creates aggravating circumstances for violence and presents barriers to escaping abuse. For example, although factors such as economic stress and drug abuse (both commonly associated with poverty) are not themselves the cause of domestic violence, they can contribute to or exacerbate the violence.
Poverty also makes it harder for women to escape domestic violence as when a woman is completely financially dependent on her abuser, leaving is simply not an option if she has no other way to provide food and shelter for herself and her children.
At the same time, as poverty perpetuates domestic violence, domestic violence also perpetuates poverty by hindering women’s financial independence and creating new cycles of poverty for children.
In the case of Kate, another survivor of domestic violence, her husband prevented her from working outside the home. This itself was one component of the abuse Kate endured and made Kate and her four children entirely dependent on her abusive husband. Kate’s economic dependence was compounded by the social isolation that often marks domestic violence situations.
Domestic violence also perpetuates and creates new cycles of poverty, particularly for children. Child survivors of domestic violence often experience disruptions to their education. This results in child survivors falling behind in school, underperforming academically, or even dropping out altogether, as in the case of Siti’s daughter.
The effects of such educational upheaval are not limited to childhood, but continue on into adulthood, when the survivor’s earning capacity and overall economic prospects are diminished.
Domestic violence shelters and related services are critical in breaking the cycles of domestic violence and poverty
Alston’s visit to WAO highlighted a critical component of the solution to breaking the cycles of both domestic violence and poverty - the availability of domestic violence shelters and related services for survivors.
Whether domestic violence is the root cause of poverty or the pre-existing condition of poverty perpetuates the domestic violence – interventions to domestic violence are fundamental.
This is underscored by the case of Yasmin, who endured 12 years of abuse by her husband. During this time, Yasmin lost all financial and social support from her family and friends. When she decided to leave her husband, she could not even afford to buy food. The shelter, protection, and support Yasmin received from WAO allowed her to search for a job to support herself and her children and to eventually become independent.
Similarly, May, who was the foreign spouse of a Malaysian man, was entirely dependent on her abusive husband. After four years of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, May finally left her husband and sought help from WAO to return to her home country.
Without being able to access shelter and accompanying social work support, Yasmin and May may have been unable to leave their abusers, forced to return to them, or had no choice but to live on the streets.
Professor Alston’s visit to Malaysia helped draw attention to the reality that poverty is in fact far more prevalent in the country than is often acknowledged. It also highlighted that the implications of poverty can be even more harmful to women and children, such as when poverty perpetuates domestic violence.
To combat these two phenomena, the government must allocate greater resources towards dedicated domestic violence shelters and support services, as well as to social safety nets and poverty reduction programmes for low-income communities.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.