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Women and violence and debt and poverty

SPEECH TO FABIAN SOCIETY EVENT AT 6.30PM ON 11 MARCH 2015 – Poverty, Violence, Debt: Gender is Relevant

 

CATRIONA MACLENNAN

 

Why are roads and bridges a key issue in the Northland by-election and domestic violence is not ?

 

In Aotearoa/ New Zealand, police receive 95,000 domestic violence reports every year. That’s around one every six minutes. Around 29 people each year are killed in domestic violence attacks. Half of all homicides in this country are the result of family violence. And up to a third of all New Zealand women will experience partner or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

 

And New Zealand is not alone in this terrible scourge.

In every country in the world, there is an epidemic of violence against women. In the United Kingdom, police receive one domestic violence call every minute – 1300 every day or 570,000 a year. Two women a week are killed in domestic violence tragedies in Britain.

 

In Australia, one woman a week is killed by an intimate partner.

 

So obviously, domestic violence is a major man’s issue – but at every forum where it’s discussed it will be overwhelmingly women who are present. It’s women who volunteer our time to campaign against domestic violence. And it’s women who staff refuges and help other women to escape from domestic violence.

 

It’s time for men to step up and acknowledge that domestic violence is a MEN’s issue – not a women’s issue. Domestic violence will not stop until men stop beating, torturing and killing women.

We need men to take immediate and comprehensive steps to abolish domestic violence. It’s up to you. You can do it. Please –

  • Stop all violence against women immediately – physical, sexual and psychological. If you think you’re going to be violent, just leave.
  • Talk to men every day about domestic violence and discuss with other men what you can do every day to stop it. That’s what women campaigning against domestic violence do – it’s exhausting, depressing and unrewarding.
  • Speak up when men make jokes about domestic violence, rape and the inferiority of women. Your silence is an endorsement of the current violence.
  • Lobby the government to make the abolition of domestic violence its top priority for 2015.
  • Tell your local MP, the Prime Minister and the leaders of the 10 main political parties that you will not vote for a party or candidate unless they make domestic violence abolition their top priority.
  • Tell politicians you do not support funding for the America’s Cup, the Cricket World Cup, the Rugby World Cup, Michael Hill’s Golf Tournament and other male sporting events – tell them you want the money to go towards abolishing violence against women.
  • Tell politicians that the $69 million the Government has found overnight - because it’s worried it will lose the Northland by-election - would be better spent on helping women and children escape violence.
  • Donate money to help women and children escape permanently from violence.

 

A common question asked about domestic violence victims is “Why doesn’t she leave ?” This question sums just about everything that’s wrong with our approach to domestic violence. What we should be asking is “Why doesn’t he stop beating her ?” But I’ve never been asked that, ever, by a journalist or anyone else. It’s always “Why doesn’t she leave ?”

Asking “why doesn’t she leave ?”  puts the responsibility for stopping the violence on the woman. But why do we do that ? She’s the victim. She’s not the perpetrator. It’s the man’s behaviour that needs to change, not the woman’s.

We need to start asking men “Why don’t you stop beating, raping and killing women ?”

We also need to support women trying to leave violent relationships. At the moment, we don’t do that. The Government last July announced a package of measures to prevent family violence. But the funding for it is $9.4 million over 4 years.

By contrast, the Government gave $36 million to the 2013 America’s Cup challenge. It spent over $300 million on the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Michael Hill’s Queenstown Golf Tournament has over the years received several million dollars in government funding – despite the fact that the predicted economic return from the tournament falls well short of the criteria for such a large investment of government money.

Since 2008, Inland Revenue has written off $5 billion in tax debt. Despite that, the total amount owed to Inland Revenue for tax, student loans and child support had by last December reached $9.3 billion.

  • Between $1 and $6 billion is lost every year through tax evasion.
  • $2.6 billion is owing in child support.
  • $591 million in unpaid fines and reparation was clocked up in three years.
  • And $68 million unpaid tax was clawed back from property speculators in three years.

 

So how many of those people do we send to jail ?  Almost none.

Let’s contrast that with how we treat mothers on benefits. Doing that shows we have a complete double standard about benefit fraud compared with tax evasion, non-payment of child support and white collar crime.

Single mothers do an incredibly hard job raising children on their own. Benefits fall far short of being a liveable family income, so money is always tight and there is never enough to cover essential basics – far less to spend on activities for the children.

The sole parent benefit is available to parents who are not living “in a relationship in the nature of marriage.” That is, they have to be single to be eligible for the benefit.

But relationships are not cut and dried – they evolve and change. It’s often unclear when a relationship in the nature of marriage actually starts – and similarly for when it ends.

The legal test for determining whether a parent is eligible for the sole parent benefit is accordingly very unclear. In the late 1990s, Work and Income was found to be applying the law wrongly. The Joychild Report recommended that 15,600 cases be reviewed to see whether women had wrongly had their benefits cut off. 15,600 – that’s a huge number.

But, it gets even worse. Because, not only do some of these women have their benefits cut off. Not only does Work and Income tell them they have to repay the amount the department says they were not entitled to -  and that will mean a lifetime of debt trying to pay money back at $20 or $30 dollars a week.

But, on top of that, we send some of these women to jail. Work and Income prosecutes them for benefit fraud and, if they are convicted, they will face a jail sentence if the debt is over a certain amount.

This separates the mother from her children, which is incredibly damaging to the children. They will suffer the impact of this for the rest of their lives. Many of these women have ended up on a benefit because they are fleeing violent relationships. So what happens when the mother is sent to jail, is that the children sometimes end up back in the care of the violent man she left to protect her children.

When the woman comes out of jail, we say she still has not been punished enough. Even though she has served a prison term, Work and Income will still pursue her for the rest of her life to repay the full amount of the debt.
What this means is that the woman can never improve life for herself and her children. If she ever manages to get a job and move off the benefit, the family will be no better off, because Work and Income will increase the amount it takes from her each week in repayment of the debt.

Dr Lisa Marriott of Victoria University has done some incredibly valuable research. She compared the way we treat benefit fraud with the way we treat tax evasion. She found that, over a three year period, tax frauds involving an average of $287,000 carried a 22 per cent chance of jail for the fraudster. By contrast, beneficiaries charged in relation to average amounts of $67,000 had a 60 per cent chance of being sent to jail. That is, they were almost THREE TIMES more likely to be imprisoned, even though the amount was only a quarter of that of tax fraudsters.

It’s also important to mention that benefit fraud totals $23 to $30 million a year a – tiny amount compared to tax evasion and white collar crime. (I would also be dubious about whether benefit fraud even amounts to that much, as I know how often the Work and Income figures are wrong and overstate the debt.)

 

The case which highlighted the punitive way we treat mothers in violent relationships happened in the late 1990s. It involved a woman called Isabella. Isabella lived with a man for 18 years. For 16 of those 18 years, he viciously beat her four or five times a week – sometimes using an axe and a baseball bat. She was hospitalised twice with broken bones, half of her teeth were smashed and her eyes were so severely blackened that she couldn’t open them. Pregnancy didn’t stop the beatings. When their child was born, he beat her when the baby cried. After the first year, there was a long series of rapes. The man did not care for their baby, did not contribute to the running of the house and did not share his earnings with her. He threatened her with a shotgun and repeatedly said he would hunt her down and kill her if she left him.

 

For much of the 16 years, Isabella worked to support herself and her son. But she went on to the DPB from time to time to maintain herself and her child.This required her to sign a declaration that she was not “living in a relationship in the nature of marriage.” Work and Income decided that she HAD been in a relationship in the nature of marriage and she was not entitled to the benefit and directed that she repay the money. Work and Income also prosecuted Isabella for benefit fraud and she was convicted on 13 charges. She appealed to the High Court, and then to the Court of Appeal.

 

It was only when the case got to the Court of Appeal that the court said Isabella had not been in a relationship in the nature of marriage as the man had provided no financial support and the violence meant there was none of the emotional commitment required for a relationship in the nature of marriage.

 

When this Court of Appeal decision was released, the Government’s immediate reaction was to draft a bill to overturn the Court of Appeal judgment.  So the Government actually believed that women subjected to appalling violence and receiving no financial support from a partner should not be able to receive benefits to support themselves and their children. (The general election then intervened, halting progress of the bill).

 

I’d just like to finish by talking about the things we need to do –

  • Abolish Benefits Review Committees and establish an independent process for reviewing Work and Income decisions
  • Stop sending mothers to jail for benefit fraud – it is the children who are the most heavily punished
  • Deduct entitlements the woman would have had from any debt established
  • Treat mothers on benefits the same way as other people convicted of offences and only require them to repay an amount that can realistically be repaid within five years, rather than burdening her and the children with debts for the rest of her life
  • Require the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development to take into account the welfare and best interests of the beneficiary’s children when deciding whether or not to recover overpayments.

 

Thank you.



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