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'Everyone around you loses': How domestic abuse hurts economies

A demonstrator takes part in an International Women's Day rally in Rome, Italy, March 8, 2024. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

A demonstrator takes part in an International Women's Day rally in Rome, Italy, March 8, 2024. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

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The hidden costs of domestic abuse derail lives and dent economies; experts say governments should do more to help survivors

  •  Domestic violence costs countries 1%-2% of GDP
  • Hidden financial toll on women and families
  • Governments could save money by tackling abuse

MEXICO CITY/JOHANNESBURG - Sine Hope's big passion in life is Latin and ballroom dancing, but her days of samba and rumba are over - two years ago a vicious assault by her then-boyfriend left the vivacious South African in a wheelchair.

The former construction industry consultant, who was her family's main breadwinner, has not worked since and needs a full-time carer.

"I almost died at his hands," the 35-year-old told Context.

"It's affected my life entirely - physically, mentally and financially."

Hope, who lives in Ladysmith, about 310 km (190 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, used to support her younger brother's studies.

But with his sister no longer able to work, he had to quit his civil engineering course and is now unemployed.

Hope's story illustrates the devastating financial impact of domestic violence on women and their families.

But it is not only individuals who suffer. Experts say governments could save billions of dollars a year by tackling domestic abuse, and hope that revealing the financial toll will spur them to act.

Worldwide, around one in three women experience violence, mostly at the hands of current or former partners, according to UN Women.

Research suggests the global cost of all violence against women could be about 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). That's roughly 2 trillion dollars, or the size of Canada's economy.

Domestic abuse burdens health, police and judicial services, leads to absenteeism at work, cuts productivity, erodes families' finances and is a barrier to ending poverty.

From Australia to Lesotho, a slew of studies have attempted to put a price tag on domestic violence.

"Whether it's a highly developed country or a lower-income country, the dollar figure has impact," said Nata Duvvury, a pioneer in costing studies.

"It makes governments and officials sit up. The studies all show the same thing - that it's extremely costly."

While a lack of data makes it hard to definitively measure the burden for any given country, Context tallied the financial impact on two women - Hope in South Africa and Mexican activist Carolina Ramírez.

After adding up lost earnings, medical expenses and legal costs for the women and their families, Context found the extreme violence that ruined their lives could also cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Intergenerational cost

In rich countries, studies on the cost of domestic violence often focus on public resources such as health and social services, police forces, judicial systems and prisons.

But in lower-income countries, where public services are weaker, studies concentrate more on the personal and household costs.

These can include paying medical bills, dealing with unplanned pregnancies, replacing smashed up furniture and equipment, transport and childcare costs for hospital and court appointments, or the money needed to move house.

For example, one study in Vietnam found survivors of abuse spent roughly the equivalent of a quarter of their income on dealing with the repercussions of domestic abuse.

"Because violence is so pervasive then all these individual impacts aggregate into a sizeable impact at the national level," said Duvvury, director of the Centre for Global Women's Studies at the University of Galway in Ireland.

She said there had been "an explosion of research" to measure the financial cost of domestic violence.

Although the studies are not comparable as they use different methodologies, most put the cost at 1% to 2% of GDP - roughly equivalent to what many low-income countries spend on primary education.

But with domestic violence widely under-reported, these estimates may be conservative.

Many women suffer abuse for decades, afraid to speak out for fear of being stigmatised or blamed. In some places, spousal violence is even tolerated.

The noxious effects often ripple through to the next generation. Studies show children who witness domestic violence can be permanently damaged, with their schooling disrupted and future opportunities restricted.

As adults, they are also more likely to be involved in abusive relationships - either as victims or perpetrators.

Sine Hope's story

Hope's violent partner was already costing her money before the attack that put her in a wheelchair. She lost several contracts when he picked arguments before meetings with clients.

Context estimated the overall cost to Hope and her brother to be about 1.66 million rand ($89,780) so far.

Hope, who is largely bedridden, said her health insurance, medication and carer's wages came to 10,800 rand a month. She has also paid legal fees and if she wants to gain more independence, she will need an electric wheelchair.

Over her lifetime, she could lose about 10 million rand in potential income, not taking into account inflation or pay rises.

If her brother had completed his degree he could have been earning about 240,000 rand a year. But with unemployment in South Africa exceeding 30%, he is struggling to find work.

Given the myriad financial effects of violence, Duvvury says governments can ill-afford to ignore the problem - not least, because a failure to tackle domestic abuse undermines investments to cut poverty.

It's an argument that resonates.

"That actually interests governments more than simply saying it's (costing) 2% of GDP," she said.

Experts say wealthy countries could also save money by investing in earlier and more targeted intervention.

British charity Women's Aid estimated domestic violence cost England about 78 billion pounds ($97.87 billion) annually, partly because women trapped in abusive relationships end up repeatedly shunted between different public agencies.

It said investing in specialist support services could save the public purse nine pounds for every pound spent.

Chart showing the estimated cost of domestic violence so far on Sine Hope and her brother. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Diana Baptista

Chart showing the estimated cost of domestic violence so far on Sine Hope and her brother. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Diana Baptista

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Studies influence policies

Putting a price on domestic violence can help convince governments to act when they are not persuaded by human rights arguments alone, said Melissa Alvarado, UN Women's expert on ending gender-based violence in Asia.

"It often does take additional evidence to lay out the case and say, 'Look at how violence against women is costing ... all of us'," she said. "What else could we be doing with that money?"

Alvarado said such studies had influenced policies in Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, and Australia, among others.

In Vietnam, a 2012 study led to greater investment in healthcare for survivors and created better awareness of the wider ramifications on work and education, paving the way for a more integrated government response.

Vietnam is also considering legislation that would require companies to give abuse survivors leave, as recommended in a 2021 report.

Australia, New Zealand and Ireland are among a handful of countries that have already introduced such leave, recognising that survivors may need time for medical treatment, legal appointments, moving house and so on.

In Latin America, Colombia offers companies financial incentives to hire women affected by violence, while Brazilian companies must protect jobs for six months if survivors take leave.

Alvarado said such policies provided a lifeline to those trying to escape violence and rebuild their lives.

"Keeping a job is incredibly important for helping a woman walk away from an abusive relationship," she said.

Cost to businesses

Domestic abuse not only leads to increased absenteeism but affects time-keeping and concentration, reducing productivity.

One study in Colombia found women who had been abused earned 40% less than those who had not.

Duvvury said men involved in domestic violence were also more distracted and less productive and might miss work to attend court or move house.

Some studies have looked at the resulting impact on the private sector with businesses potentially facing bigger staff turnover, recruitment and training costs.

One survey in Papua New Guinea found staff members lost over 11 days of work a year on average because of violence, with one firm alone losing an estimated 26,200 days annually.

Some larger companies are starting to look at the role they can play in addressing the issue.

A recent survey by UN Women of 22 of Britain's biggest companies found many offered support including flexible working, special leave, financial assistance or temporary protection against dismissal.

With operations in 180 countries, these companies have huge potential to address domestic abuse, especially in places with limited state support, the report said.

Carolina Ramírez's story

Carolina Ramirez is pictured during a Day of the Dead event in Mexico City on November 5, 2023. Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Carolina Ramirez is pictured during a Day of the Dead event in Mexico City on November 5, 2023. Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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But for the vast majority of women, assistance from employers or governments is all but non-existent - something Mexican campaigner Ramírez knows all too well.

Ten years ago, Ramírez, 61, was kidnapped and tortured by her former husband after leaving hospital in Mexico City following a stroke. He held her captive for four days, attacking her with a knife and hammer and cleaning out her bank account.   

"I had to rebuild myself from zero," said Ramírez, who needed surgery for multiple injuries and then had to rent a property near the hospital - 230 km from her home in eastern Mexico – so she could continue treatment and liaise with prosecutors ahead of her former husband's trial.

"You get support the first two or three months, but then the donations and help end," said the former human rights consultant.

Her son, a photographer, and her daughter, a teacher, gave up their jobs and moved to Mexico City to care for her.

Context calculated that domestic abuse had cost Ramírez and her children about 3.92 million Mexican pesos ($232,460) so far.

Ramírez now needs a wheelchair, making it difficult to use public transport.

"There were times I had to decide whether to spend money on a taxi (to go to court) or struggle to take a bus instead and buy a sandwich. I didn't have enough for both," she said.

Ramírez could not work for three years. She eventually resumed part-time work, but worsening health forced her to quit in 2020.

She now lives with her daughter and has set up a campaign group to lobby the government to support survivors with jobs and other assistance.

Over her lifetime Ramírez will lose about 4.5 million pesos in potential earnings, according to calculations by Context.

The activist is preparing for a fourth operation related to her injuries. But having run out of money, she is selling her last asset to pay for the surgery - a small house she had planned to leave her children.

Her former husband was jailed for eight years. He would have been freed last year, but died in prison in 2018. Were he still alive, Ramírez thinks she would have had to spend even more money going into hiding.

"Violence affects your entire environment," she said. "You lose, your family loses, and everyone around you loses."

($1 = 18.4895 rand)

($1 = 0.7970 pounds)

($1 = 16.8628 Mexican pesos)

(Reporting by Emma Batha, Diana Baptista and Zanele Mji; Additional reporting by Anastasia Moloney and Andre Cabette Fabio. Writing by Emma Batha. Editing by Amruta Byatnal and Clar Ni Chonghaile.)


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