Creating a life beyond violence. Can Enterprise Education offer women a better chance at surviving and thriving after abusive relationships?

COVID-19 continues to disrupt and claim lives around the world, causing tragic numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. We all know that lockdowns have wrought a vast array of consequences: jobs lost, marriages destroyed, children denied precious opportunities for socialization and education. And, in the shadow of all this, there are women and children everywhere whose fear of the disease pales beside their fear of the person with whom they’re trapped at home. 


Since the beginning of quarantine restrictions and “safer-at-home” orders, the global rate of violence against women and children has steepened: every country has seen an increase in cases—and deaths. Deeming this a “shadow pandemic”, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has issued an urgent call for “all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic”.


Cost of violence against women

In addition to the devastating human costs of violence against women, the scale of the economic costs is staggering. These include the costs of health care for survivors, the loss of economic output, and the provision of police and criminal justice services.  Violence against women is estimated to cost some countries up to 3.7% of their GDP, more than double what most countries spend on education.  (In the UK alone, the economic and social cost of domestic abuse is approximately £66 billion.)  


Domestic violence is also a driver of homelessness, a problem that is even more severe for migrant women and those of uncertain immigration status, with ‘no recourse to the public purse’ and few (if any) refuges available to them.  


A way forward

Financial independence is one of the most effective ways for women to break the long-term hold of domestic abuse and violence on their lives. When women can control their access to fundamental resources such as food, clothing, and shelter, they can take control of their futures. They become more able to leave (and stay out of) abusive relationships and can ensure the wellbeing of their children—which, as experts say, allows them to break cycles of abuse that span multiple generations.

Economic insecurity is the primary reason women stay with (or return to) an abusive partner. Economic abuse is a standard tool of control for abusers; indeed, efforts to limit a partner’s access to money and financial assets occur in 98% of domestic violence cases. The term ‘economic abuse’ is used to recognize that it is not just money and finances that can be controlled by an abuser (known as ‘financial abuse’), but also the crucial things that money can buy, such as food, clothing, transportation, and housing. Because it does not depend on physical proximity, economic abuse can continue, escalate, or even start after separation, and can continue for many years. The flip side, of course, is that breaking free financially can be the key to permanent freedom from an abusive relationship.

Enterprise Education offers a path forward

For some women who have been physically, emotionally, and financially abused by their partners, enterprise can offer an effective path to economic independence, safety, and healing.  Some womens organizations, which provide refuge and support for victims of domestic violence, have begun to use enterprise education as a means to provide support, training, and employment. These innovative training programs provide vocational training for women survivors of gender-based violence, enabling the women to plan, finance, and manage their own lives, their families, and, often, their own small businesses.

The programs designed to help survivors to support themselves (and, often, their children) are focused on enterprise education: helping individuals to develop entrepreneurial, life, and employment skills to prepare them for an independent life, usually with an emphasis on financial capability, enterprise capability, and business understanding. Entrepreneurship training gives women the opportunity to identify and develop a range of skills and qualities that are generally recognized as being essential for the future workforce, and for anyone thinking about starting their own business. 

In addition to essential enterprise education, these programs also need to equip women with the soft skills that employers or business partners are seeking. This may include learning how to: tackle a job interview; plan a rental; understand more about the economy and society; or effectively manage everyday financial budgeting. 


Enterprise education is a good match for abuse survivors

Enterprise education builds women’s confidence and helps to solve the problem of patchy employment histories—where abusers have prevented victims from going to work, or when victims have had to take time off to recover from injuries. Most importantly, it places control in the hands of the survivors, who can, as entrepreneurs, decide when to work (thus avoiding childcare difficulties) and can rebuild their confidence at their own pace, client by client.


The U.S.-based domestic violence organization, FreeFrom, runs a successful initiative that provides entrepreneurship training: the weekly classroom portion lasts six months, but participants also have access to a range of resources informally after that. Thus far, three-quarters of participants have either launched their own businesses or are in the prelaunch stage, and all of them have made a profit in their first month of business. Above all: None of the survivors has returned to her abuser.

Another great example, in northern Kenya, is the women-only village, Umoja—“unity”, in Swahili—which was originally founded in 1990 as a sanctuary for 15 women who had survived sexual assault and rape by British soldiers. The village has grown to offer shelter, livelihood opportunities, and a safe life to any and all women trying to escape from abuse or child marriage. The 50 women living in Umoja today, along with their children, have created an economy for themselves. They each earn a regular income to take care of their basic needs, and, collectively, they run a campsite for safari tourists and charge an entrance fee to visit the village, where women make and sell jewelry in the craft center. They have also built a school, open to children from Umoja and other nearby villages. In addition to having built this sanctuary for themselves and their children, the women of Umoja lead independent lives, interacting with surrounding villages, markets, and schools.


WEI takes up the challenge

Such initiatives have proven successful on numerous measures. So, why aren’t they more common? Because advocacy and support organizations are typically cash-strapped and overwhelmed by demand, and this obliges them to focus on more immediate, life-and-death safety issues. As Sonja Passi, of FreeFrom, says: “Resources are in no way in proportion to the size of the problem” of domestic violence, which impacts one in three women in their lifetimes. “The movement hasn’t had the luxury of stepping back and thinking: How about long term? How about innovative ways of addressing this problem?”

To address this issue, a new initiative by the Women’s Economic Imperative, in partnership with local authorities and women’s charities, is undergoing a trial run in the UK, with groups of local and migrant women who have suffered domestic abuse. This pilot enterprise-skills program provides women with the skills and understanding they need to develop an economically secure future. The program is designed with the particular needs of abuse survivors firmly at its heart. Key features include: bringing together a network of partnership organizations with expertise in supporting domestic violence survivors; finding experts to help women to rebuild their financial confidence and credit ratings; and offering access to a range of business, mentoring, and legal advisors.  

The legal advice component is vital. In some places, more than 50% of survivors lose custody of their children, principally because the abuser is often the more economically secure parent. This is tragically ironic in those cases where an abuser’s financial security has been built on a pattern of economic abuse. And there are documented cases in which parents who have been convicted of child abuse have been granted custody of the child(ren), owing to their superior economic stability.  

Providing a network of peer-to-peer support is another important element of the program, aimed at tackling survivors’ loneliness, lack of confidence, and need for healing. Participants are able to create informal support groups and cooperatives, helping each other out with childcare and household cleaning, while also sharing their learning and experience. In addition, this support network offers an opportunity for successful business owners to act as role models and mentors for those women who are starting out on their own enterprises.

Watch this space for updates.

By: Dinah Bennett, WEI and ICE; Anne Jenkins, WEI; Dr. Omolade Femi-Ajao, Manchester University and WEI