Walking on Eggshells: Abused Women's Experiences of Ontario's Welfare System: Final Report of Research Findings from the Woman and Abuse Welfare Research Project

Tuesday, July 27 2010

April 3, 2004: Walking on Eggshells: Abused Women's Experiences of Ontario's Welfare System: Final Report of Research Findings from the Woman and Abuse Welfare Research Project

The findings from this research project make clear that women who flee abusive relationships and turn to welfare seeking refuge and support frequently find neither. Women's experiences of welfare are often profoundly negative.  Women struggle to survive with their children on little income, often going without adequate food, shelter and clothing.  They encounter a system that is less than forthcoming about their entitlements, and about the multiple rules with which they must comply.  Their hopes of training and employment through workfare participation are almost invariably dashed.  They are often subjected to demeaning and humiliating treatment from workers within a system in which suspicion and the devaluation of recipients are structured into its very core.   For many the experience of welfare is like another abusive relationship.  And virtually every woman with whom we spoke was caught in one or more double binds as she struggled to be a good mother, good worker and good citizen.  Disturbingly, the decision to return to an abusive relationship is often the 'best' decision for a woman, in a social context of horrendously constrained options.

Simultaneously and very importantly, the welfare system is also misused by abusive men to enhance their power and control over women.  Their power and control is enhanced when women return to, or can't leave, the relationship because they are unable to adequately provide for themselves and their children on welfare.  Abusive men's power and control is also shored up when they are able to call anonymously to welfare snitch lines, and when they can readily set women up for fraud prosecutions.   And their power and control is further strengthened when they can manipulate systems because of better English language skills.

This picture of abused women's experiences on welfare stands in sharp contrast to the state's promise of zero tolerance of domestic violence so frequently trumpeted in the criminal justice context.   The 'deserving' recipients of criminal justice protection (and we hasten to add that this protection does not always materialize in practice) are, as our report details, recast within the welfare regime as undeserving and untrustworthy.   In the welfare context abused women are subjected to another zero tolerance policy -- zero tolerance of welfare fraud regime -- a regime abusive men readily exploit. 

Genuine respect of women's right to safety, and to live free of violence in their lives means creating the social conditions -- adequate welfare, access to safe housing, access to childcare, access to employment that pays a living wage, etc. -- that would truly make it difficult for men to "get away with it".   As is clearly revealed by our interviews, access to meaningful social supports is absolutely essential to women's safety.   A responsive, supportive, adequately funded welfare system could play a fundamental role in securing women's safety and women's equality.

What is needed most urgently and most profoundly is a fundamental paradigm shift; a shift from viewing poverty as the failing of individuals, and those who are poor as lazy, unmotivated and deceptive.  To the extent that the welfare system in Ontario continues to operate from such a paradigm, there is really little hope that it will offer meaningful support to facilitate women's safe exit from abusive relationships.   Women will continue to be subjected to demeaning, humiliating treatment; will be constantly regarded with suspicion; and will be subject to the control and discipline of the state.   Women will continue to return to abusive relationships, women will not be safe, and women will not be equal citizens. 

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