Carmelle Bonhometre (right), DV program director, with Paulette (left) a DV survivor.BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Isa Woldeguiorguis says the current recession isn’t causing anyone to become abusive, because it is a learned behavior.

"Someone who uses violence will use it in an economic windfall, too," said Woldeguiorguis, policy and systems advocacy director at Jane Doe Inc., a Boston-based group that works to reduce domestic violence. "If they win the lottery, win a million dollars, they would still be abusive to their family."

But the recession has made abusive people more violent, more desperate, she said.  "For immigrant and refugee women, the recession paints a dangerous picture."

The economic downturn acts as a stressor, while at the same time resources are drying up for organizations that work specifically with immigrant communities, Woldeguiorguis said. This has led to an escalation in the severity and frequency of domestic violence among immigrant women.

Nationally, 75 percent of domestic violence shelters reported an increase in women seeking help since September 2008, according to an April report by the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, based in Dallas.

The recession also leads to "opportunity violence," said Meghan Rhoad, a researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "If the batterer has become unemployed they have more opportunities to be violent. There is more exposure."

Safety Net Eroding

In what appears to be part of a national trend, municipalities across Massachusetts are cutting budgets, corporate sponsorships are drying up and individual charitable donations are declining

A merciless regional economy–in September, for example, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 9.3 percent, the highest rate since 1976–has led to an erosion of the safety net for domestic violence survivors, according to advocates and treatment specialists in New England.

For those who specialize in helping immigrant women, many of them undocumented, the stresses are particularly acute.

"It’s been really really difficult and just speaking with other organizations, I know we are not the only one," said Qingjian Shi, director of education and outreach at the Boston-based Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence.

"When these domestic violence service programs, such as shelters, get squeezed it is poor women who are the most affected, including a disproportionate number of immigrant women and women of color," said Rhoad at Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, demand for services has risen, Rhoad said. More women are coming to shelters with deeper needs and staying for extended periods, so fewer beds are available.

Rhoad said that an "outrageous example" of this scenario is in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wiped out all state funding for domestic violence shelters with one pen stroke.

In July, the governor eliminated state funding for its domestic violence programs. This meant that the 94 nonprofits that run California’s domestic violence shelters lost almost 40 percent of their funding. The cuts in state financing, nearly $16 million, have forced several domestic violence shelters to close their doors, layoff staff and reduce services.

Funding Cuts Despite Demand

Meanwhile, the number of immigrant women seeking help at the Western Massachusetts Legal Services has doubled since 2006.

At the same time, the number of qualified attorneys and advocates has been reduced by half, said Hisham A. Leil, an attorney with the group, which is based in Springfield, Mass. "Our funding has gone down this year alone by a million dollars."

The Association of Haitian Women in Boston once had four advocates, but now there is just one, said Carmelle Bonhometre, domestic violence program director at the organization.

The economic downturn has led to an increase in the intensity and rate of domestic violence, she said. Now more people in the Haitian community know about the organization and each day more women come in with tales of pain and abuse. As funding shrinks, however, there is less help available. Interns pitch in, she said, but it is never enough.

As a result, along with outreach projects, an after-school program for the victims’ children and English language and Creole literacy classes were truncated. "It is not a pretty picture and it is getting worse every single day," Bonhometre said.

Emergency shelters are packed, posing an additional barrier for immigrant women, Woldeguiorguis said. Victims are worried: "Is someone in that program going to speak my language, going to understand my cultural needs?" she said.

Often victims are angst-ridden that their community will come to know that they had to flee their homes.

"The hurdles that refugee and immigrant women have to go through to reach safety, liberty, dignity are so much greater than they are for non-immigrant women," Woldeguiorguis said.

Bijoyeta Das is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Boston.

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For more information:

Immigrant Survivors of Abuse Seek Freedom

Part 2: Domestic Violence Among Refugee and Immigrant Women

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