The Conversation is running a series, Class in Australia, to identify, illuminate and debate its many manifestations. Here, Anastasia Powell considers the role of class in the complex of contributing factors to violence against women.
Violence against women remains a significant issue globally and in Australian society. One in three women in Australia experience physical violence and almost one in five experience sexual violence in their lifetime. While victims of violence come from all walks of life, some women are disproportionately vulnerable.
For instance, younger women (18 to 24 years) have been found to be at greater risk of both physical and sexual violence than women in older age groups.
Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse. This is especially so when the abuser is also a carer and can exercise control over the woman’s daily needs.
Much research has demonstrated that women from Indigenous backgrounds face a much higher risk of violence. They suffer more severe forms of abuse, including disproportionately high rates of homicide. They also face culturally specific barriers to seeking support.
It is unclear whether women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds experience greater risk of violence. Once violence has occurred, cultural and language barriers can make it more difficult to find assistance.
The problem that goes unnamed
The factor that best predicts whether a person might be a perpetrator or victim of violence is gender. National statistics confirm the overall gendered nature of violence.
Men who experience violence are most likely to be assaulted by a male stranger in public space. Women are most often assaulted by a current or former male partner, acquaintance or family member in the home.
But what about class? It has become almost taboo to name class and its relationship with violence against women.
This is partly because as a society we have only recently begun to place responsibility for violence where it belongs. It lies with the (mostly male) perpetrators and the choices they make to use violence against the people around them. To talk about factors that make some men more likely to use violence, or some women more vulnerable to victimisation, risks lessening that responsibility.
It is perhaps more comfortable to talk about risk factors that allow us to explain why violence occurs among particular communities or “types” of people than to admit the widespread and systemic nature of the problem. Violence cuts across economic factors. Victims and perpetrators are found at every income level.
The complex effects of inequality
Yet socioeconomic inequality does intersect with violence against women in a number of ways.
It is clear, for example, that women with fewer financial resources face significant barriers to finding support and safe accommodation should they leave a violent relationship. Partner violence against women is a leading cause of women’s (and children’s) homelessness.
Women who experience domestic violence may also experience disruptions to their capacity to work. Limitations on workforce participation are sometimes a feature of abuse. This further limits their resources and potential sources of outside assistance.
Class does not appear, however, to be strongly related to women’s likelihood of becoming a victim of men’s violence. Australian data from the International Violence Against Women Survey, for example, indicated that levels of education were little different between women who had experienced physical or sexual violence and those who had not. The survey also found that victimisation differed little between working and non-working women, or with household income.
Where studies have found an association between class indicators and violence against women, the connections appear to be complex. For example, review studies tend to show weak to moderate associations between men’s perpetration of intimate partner violence and their education levels, labour force participation and income. The strongest predictors include: having attitudes condoning violence, rigid gender-role ideology, hostility, having a history of violence and drug/alcohol abuse.
Other research suggests that men’s use of violence is linked to demonstrations of masculinity. This differs with class resources, such that men with fewer conventional markers of status (such as education and employment) may be more likely to use violence as a marker of power and control.
Some studies have found that communities with greater socio-economic disadvantage (such as low educational attainment and low labour force participation) are more at risk of violence including intimate partner violence.
It is difficult to unpack how much of that risk is due to an individual’s class situation, or the combination of disadvantage in communities. Indeed, some research has suggested that strong predictors of violence include community cohesiveness, social supports and services. As formal and informal supports tend to be deficient in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, prevention efforts should focus on such supports.
Gender, culture and class
Preventing violence against women has been an Australian policy priority in recent years. Much attention has been devoted to how we can change the structures and culture of gender inequality, which underpins the violence.
Yet if we are serious about preventing men’s violence against women, we must consider the interactions of gender, culture and class. Socioeconomic disadvantage in communities and gender inequality (which includes women’s socioeconomic disadvantage) clearly are significant factors. Most importantly, these are factors that we as a society can take action to change.
The association between class and violence against women is not a simple one of cause and effect. But denying its interaction with gender inequality in shaping the dynamics and impacts of violence will only prevent us from developing effective solutions.
See the other articles in the series Class in Australia here.