How a computer can change the lives of domestic violence survivors

by Maria Caspani | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 10 July 2014 18:51 GMT

A woman walks with her dog behind the boardwalk destroyed by hurricane Sandy in October 2012 in the Rockaways section of the borough of Queens in New York October 24, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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For survivors of violence, learning how to use a computer means getting access to a whole new set of resources that many of them don't know even exist

A young woman in her mid-twenties, Sarah was in an abusive, violent relationship for over four years.

Sarah is not her real name.  She declined to disclose her full identity due to safety concerns.

Her partner, who is also the father of Sarah’s 4-year-old daughter, wouldn’t let her leave their apartment except to go to work, and he would take her entire salary away, leaving her completely dependent on him not just for her survival, but also for their daughter’s.

"He took my ID away - my green card and my passport... I was scared. I let the abuse escalate," Sarah told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a Manhattan shelter for domestic violence victims where she has taken refuge.

"You have no control over your life. All you have is this person and you think that he loves you," said the young woman, who grew up in New York but was born abroad.

Earlier this week, the Urban Resource Institute (URI)- one of the city's largest providers of services for victims of domestic violence - unveiled the first computer lab at that same shelter in what the charity says is an effort to eradicate economic abuse of the type Sarah encountered. 

“For many domestic violence victims, the damage wrought by economic abuse — which can result in ruined credit scores, identity or property theft, legal issues and erratic employment histories — can be overwhelming,” said Nathaniel Fields, president and CEO of URI. “If I keep control of how you spend your money, if I don’t let you work, I’m also using a tactic to control your life.”

Ninety-eight percent of domestic violence victims in the U.S. experience economic abuse, often alongside physical, sexual and emotional abuse, according to URI.

People in financially abusive relationships are often forbidden to work by their partner for fear they could gain economic independence, and as many as 50 percent of victims report losing their job because of domestic violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The computer lab, which was funded by BBVA bank, aims to provide a safe learning place where survivors can build job-training skills and slowly regain financial independence.

“One of the major predictors of whether someone is going to be able to maintain their independence from abuse is their ability to achieve financial security,” Fields said.

For survivors of violence, learning how to use a computer means getting access to a whole new set of resources that many of them don't know even exist.

Some women who have escaped violent partners don't know how to create a resume, or they don’t know they can open a bank account, change their name or apply for public housing online, without having to leave the safety of the shelter.

Sarah finally gathered the courage to escape from her abuser when New York City’s agency for children’s services gave her an ultimatum: Leave your partner or we'll take your daughter away.

Her partner found out she was trying to leave and beat her badly. Sarah managed to alert her sister on Facebook, who then called 911. Sarah was taken to the hospital and later checked into the shelter with her daughter.

Six months on, after taking part in an internship program run by URI that eased her back into the work environment, she’s starting to see the prospect of a new life.

“My main goal is to get my housing, get education and a job and someday do the same thing these people are doing, helping others,” she said.

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