A triad of oppression: violence, women and poverty

Noreen Callaghan, Brandon Hamber & Spiwe Takura

NGO Matters: Poverty Special, South African NGO Coalition
August 1997

Violence against women and poverty literally go hand in hand. It is unfortunately true that a high proportion of all women in South Africa suffer an inordinate number of beatings, rape and emotional abuse. However, being poor increases that risk of exposure to violence enormously.

There is growing evidence that living in impoverished conditions increases a woman's risk to all types of violence. Murder rates worldwide, as an example, are found to be highest in areas where poverty is the most prevalent. This is not to say that there is always a direct relationship between poverty and violence - but poverty is an important factor that needs to be considered when trying to understand the rates and distribution of violence against women.

Women's vulnerability derives not only from the threat of direct violence. They have been the historic victims of political and economic exclusion and have suffered the ravages of patriarchy, sexism and discriminatory practices that have kept them outside of social, political and economic power structures. In addition, socio-cultural conditioning has resulted in the fact that women and girls are often prepared for marriage and child-rearing but not for the job market.

This economic vulnerability limits their chances to change their situation when confronted with violence. Poverty-stricken women, and particularly those in rural areas, are often financially dependent, have limited access to employment and are unsupported mothers who must fulfil the role of caregiver. As a result they have few alternatives and options if they wish to leave a violent situation or community. On top of this, in most impoverished areas in South Africa, women have limited access to health, education, social, psychological and legal services.

The result is that there is evidence to show that African women, who are undoubtedly the poorest sector of our society, are more than ten times likely to experience an incidence of violence compared to their white counterparts. Recent South African police statistics also show that levels of rape are often highest in provinces which are economically less developed.

The reasons for this relationship between violence against women and poverty are numerous. apartheid's economic exploitation and segregation systematically resulted in much higher levels of poverty for black South Africans and women in particular. A range of factors have contributed to high levels of violence against women in poor areas. These factors include transiency of the population, over-crowding, disrupted family life, a mentality of dependency and the socialised acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems.

It is thus imperative that programmes designed to eradicate poverty and reduce violence against women address the many social and economic complexities that contribute to the magnitude of oppression that poor women face. While there is a need for broad national policies and campaigns, local programmes targeted to the specific needs of diverse communities are essential. As the needs of rural and urban communities in each province will differ, so too will the approach needed to combat violence and poverty vary in each community. Above all what is needed is a gender focused development strategy which takes into consideration the unique needs of poor women.

A gendered approach to poverty reduction would concentrate on the economic development and empowerment of poor women. It would provide resource generating opportunities that are easily accessible and conducive to a woman's needs and, if necessary, her schedule as a caregiver. In rural areas, it is crucial that indigenous women be given access to the ownership of land. Programmes should provide financial assistance and credit at accommodating interest rates and convenient terms of repayment so as to increase a woman's opportunity to engage in small scale business activities. Programmes must provide education and employment training that builds the capacity of women to become economically independent and thus enables them to alter situations of violence. Functional literacy programmes are a crucial step in empowering women to take control of their own lives.

It is also necessary when designing poverty eradication programmes to address the social and public health depravation of poor communities. Free and accessible health services for women and children must be provided. Services such as shelters for abused women, counselling services and legal resources are essential if women suffering from violence are to be empowered to transform their situation.

As demonstrated, violence against women is a multi-dimensional issue. Despite the complexities, or perhaps because of them, it is important that there be a national learning process against such violence. The problem calls for a campaign on human rights that promotes a culture of tolerance, that cultivates respect for women's economic and social contributions and that advocates for women's safety and ultimately their lives.

There is much to be done in the fight against violence and poverty and the effect these have on women. However, we owe it to those women who suffer from the double oppression of poverty and violence to help them to transform conditions of dependence and hopelessness to those of empowerment and progress.

Noreen Callaghan is a former Research Intern at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Brandon Hamber is the former Manager of the Transition and Reconciliation Unit at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Spiwe Takura is a former Training Co-ordinator at the Centre for the study of Violence and Reconciliation.