By Rachel Elfenbein
Since I came to socialist feminism, I have harbored ambivalent and at times critical thoughts toward Mother’s Day. I have tended to think this day represents a token appreciation of the work mothers do to produce and sustain human life, because it is everyday work that is essential but most often goes unrecognized and unvalued. This lack of social recognition in effect renders many mothers vulnerable to violence, exploitation and disease. One day alone in the calendar year cannot begin to meet the need for recognition of this most mundane and absolutely necessary work and the mothers who do it.
But I write on this day to recognize the mundane violence that mothers face, because, like the work of mothering, this violence most often goes unrecognized by those of us who do not directly live it. It is violence that never ceases, in spite of the work of feminist and women’s rights activists. It continues day in and day out, under the light of day and the darkness of night, most of the time behind closed doors within what is supposed to be the safest of spaces — the home. Although many mothers survive, this violence intimidates, maims, belittles, frightens, bruises, undermines, scars, breaks and, at the worst of times, kills mothers. Even though most days of the week I listen to survivors tell their stories, my words can never adequately capture the horror for the mothers and children who live this violence. Further, it not only limits their and their children’s choices and chances; it also deprives all of us of their full potential and contributions.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I write both in celebration — of the groundwork that feminists have done to help form me and the women’s movement’s response to gender violence — and in lament that this work has, tragically, not been enough.
Fifteen years ago, I began my work as a gender violence counselor in New York state. I presently work as a counselor on the Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline. In New York, on the hotlines where I worked, I mostly counseled women survivors. Now, most of the work I do in Philadelphia on the hotline is not counseling but responding to the immediate needs for survival of the women who call. Most need a domestic violence shelter, and most are women with children who do not have enough money to live independently from their abusers. No matter how much I care and no matter how dangerous their situations may be, I must respond that there is no domestic violence shelter for them because the safe beds for them do not exist.
In Philadelphia, we currently have only one domestic violence shelter, with 100 beds for women and their children fleeing abusive relationships. In 2013, 8910 requests for domestic violence shelter in the city (about 24 per day) had to be denied because of lack of space, more than five times the number of callers who were turned away prior to the Great Recession.
My co-workers and I do refer callers and their children to other shelters in our area, but these, including the city’s public shelter system, are most often full. Many women must choose between staying in the place where they are being abused and where their children grow up under this specter — but where they have a roof over their heads and food on the table — and going out on to the streets with their children. This “choice” represents nothing close to freedom.
The women’s movement’s many years of hard work have built the city’s hotline on which I work and made it bilingual (Spanish and English) so that it is more accessible to gender violence survivors. Women’s rights activists have also trained police to understand and address the dynamics of domestic violence and to refer survivors to our hotline.
But it is nothing short of a systemic failure that, every day on the hotline, we must turn so many women and children away from a safe and healing space. It is a failure to adequately understand and address the intersection of interpersonal gender-based violence and the structural violence of an economic system that systematically disadvantages the majority of women.
This failure is not unique to Philadelphia. In its 2013 24-Hour Census of 1649 Domestic Violence Shelters and Services across the United States, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) found that, on one day alone, at least 5778 requests for domestic violence-related housing services in the U.S. went unmet. The majority of these unmet requests stemmed from lack of funding and human resources among domestic violence organizations in the country.
We will not begin to eradicate gender violence until we address the economic determinants that keep women and their children in abusive homes. Economic barriers are not always the only reason why women stay in abusive relationships. But we will continue to have high rates of gender violence as long as many women and their children cannot materially survive independent of their abusers.
Cuts to welfare services and benefits, insufficient transitional housing for the homeless, failure to raise the minimum wage and create dignified jobs, an ongoing gender pay gap, the lack of a universal public childcare system — all these are not just blows to the poor and working class. These political choices also perpetuate and exacerbate cycles of violence in homes in our communities. These policy blows literally perpetuate the physical blows of fists, hands, knives, cars and guns that many mothers suffer at the hands of their intimate partners.
Rachel Elfenbein is a Ph.D. student in sociology and works as a popular educator, researcher, facilitator, and counselor with civil society organizations in southern Africa and North America on issues of youth, gender violence, HIV/AIDS, occupational health and safety, and children’s, women’s and workers’ rights.
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