Domestic violence and savings accounts: our research in Colombia

October 26, 2015

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the United States—but as we all know, intimate partner violence is a global phenomenon. According to the 2013 Global Review, the World Health Organization estimates that 35 percent of women globally have experienced violence in their lifetimes. Some national studies estimate that up to 70 percent of women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. If you are seeking help or would like additional information, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to speak with an advocate. Your call is confidential. For a list of resources outside the US (curated by The Pixel Project), click here.

According to a 2014 report, violence against women in Colombia has increased in the past ten years, with reported* cases of physical abuse jumping 30 percent, from 62,000 to 84,000. Women’s World Banking is conducting research in Colombia among an at-risk group of low-income women, to understand the best kind of savings product to offer them by learning about their role in the household, how money plays into the dynamics at home, and how they manage their finances. We know that savings can be a gateway to financial inclusion, but in this case, we were also curious whether savings could go beyond financial security, to perhaps bringing physical, emotional and psychological well-being to the lives of these women as well. Women’s World Banking worked with local partners to identify low-income, married women in the municipalities of Cali and Palmira between the ages of 20 and 50 who were considered at-risk for abuse. We conducted several focus groups with these women in order to gain deep insight into their home lives, financial lives and how these two aspects interact, sometimes to a volatile effect.

Her role at home

Like most women around the world, the Colombian women we spoke with considered their primary roles as caregiver and homemakers. As such, they considered managing the household money and saving for the family as their responsibility. The role of breadwinner was, unsurprisingly, perceived to be the men’s. Still, women felt that they had a responsibility to provide financially for the family, with men being responsible for the larger expenses such as rent, utilities and food. However, many reported that their husbands were either unwilling or unable to perform their role as financial provider, and to the extent that their husbands did bring in income, they used this money as a way to control their wives.

Doing it all…

Almost all of the women we spoke with had some type of income-generating activity to make ends meet, be it part-time, temporary work or juggling multiple informal activities. Some of them had salaried jobs in the past, however the tension between their caregiving and breadwinning responsibilities often made them feel like they had to choose between the two, especially after their first child was born. While many cited their own desire to care for their child as the main reason for quitting their job, they also pointed to another reason: pressure from their partners to stay home and care for the child, fulfilling their traditional household role. The women we spoke with admitted that they gave up the stable income, access to employment benefits (pension, insurance) and sense of independence in order to reduce their guilt, stress and avoid conflict with their partner. They still however, took up home-based work to augment the household income while maintaining a flexible schedule to be a homemaker, caregiver and household manager.

Many of the issues driving these women to earn and manage the household at the same time stem from the enormous financial pressure on their family. They want to support their families, however, a single income often isn’t enough. Also, they are best placed to understand what the family needs and when. But economics isn’t the only thing—the women recognize that having their own money comes with a sense of equality in their relationship with their partner and the ability to make autonomous spending decisions. It can also boost their confidence and expose them to a wider world full of bigger possibility.

… at personal risk

blog photo 300x201 1 But “doing it all” often made women feel as though they are caught in a “double bind:” where contributing or not contributing to the household put them equally at risk. For instance, some mentioned that having a bigger income that their husband resulted in tension and disagreement or withholding financial support for the family. On the other hand, if their husband’s income was bigger, he would use it to demean her, saying she needs a man to support her. Differences in how money should be spent can also cause tension. According to one woman, “The man, when there is no sugar or rice, there is no money. For other things, the men have money, but for the home, there is none.”

Intimate partner abuse in this context is often linked to feelings of dependence and lack of financial resources. According to the women we spoke with, their partner’s abusive behavior—whether physical, verbal, psychological or financial—is intended to lower their self-esteem and exacerbate their sense of dependence. And this manipulation works: some of the women in the focus groups admitted that they stayed with abusive partners because they felt like they had no other options. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

What savings can do

Some of our respondents felt that financial independence is a way out of the abusive relationships—if they can make it on their own, they would feel empowered to leave. Or, it can change things for the better: many reported that having their own money changed the dynamic of control in the household, giving her greater say and power. Thus, having access and control of resources, such as through savings, may be a tool to support women in getting out of violent or abusive relationships. We should note that it is critical for women to have a safety plan in place when they do decide to leave, as this is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship, when they’re most likely to experience physical harm

Women’s World Banking research has shown that women save, even those with low and volatile cash flows. Most save informally at home, for emergencies or for specific goals such as their children’s education, their business or improving their housing. These savings represent funds that women can control, offering some level of independence without attracting unwanted attention or provoking conflict, because even though partners or children know the woman is saving, they often do now know where it is saved or how much. Unfortunately, saving at home, while easy and convenient, is unsafe and makes the funds much too accessible for partners, family members… even the woman herself. Saving at home is also often associated with saving to meet day-to-day expenses; building an asset base requires longer term thinking and more than a piggy bank.

But the road to saving formally is blocked by many barriers. For instance, low-income women’s unpredictable cash flow makes it difficult for them to meet minimum account balances or they do not have enough or correct information about the bank’s products. Documentation requirements and account fees also dissuaded women who would otherwise open an account. Lastly, we found that emotional distance was also barrier, though this is not often recognized. For our respondents, saving at home or through rotating savings groups was private, traditional, familiar and convenient. They trusted this process. Banks were perceived as public, impersonal, strange and distant. Even though the women associated having savings in a bank with feelings of being more independent, having their own money, and a sense of accomplishment, getting over this emotional barrier was tough. Any bank that wants to serve this market must offer savings accounts that are affordable, transparent, flexible and allow them to make small deposits.

Even though our respondents reported feeling as though financial independence would help them leave or change the stakes in an abusive relationships, savings is of course, just one of the many things that has the ability to help a woman out of an abusive relationship. Some of the women we interviewed shared stories of leaving, and yes, did cite having financial security as one of the reasons for being able to leave. Still, there were a whole host of other reasons that collectively empowered them to safety.

Intimate partner abuse is ultimately about power and control, and if a woman who can save safely in a bank is able to build enough financial security, she can perhaps increase her sense of independence and ultimately empower herself to change her life for the better. We are conducting additional research in Colombia to test whether this hypothesis is true and we look forward to sharing these results with you in the coming year.

*actual numbers may be higher