The Choice: Violence or Poverty (July 2022) research report was undertaken by Professor Anne Summers AO, supported by a Paul Ramsay Foundation Fellowship.

The report reveals the stark choice facing many Australian women who have experienced domestic violence at the hands of their partner: to stay and risk continuing or even escalating violence, or to leave and face the high probability of a life of tough economic consequences for themselves and their children.

The findings are based on customised data that was prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) specifically for this report and which has not previously been made public and other data from the 2016 ABS’s Personal Safety Survey (PSS).

The principal source for this study are single mothers who experienced ‘partner violence’ . This term is used by the ABS and refers to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former cohabiting partner and are currently living as single mothers. The finding present data on single mothers who experienced ‘partner violence’ and includes Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, LGBTQI, cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds and women from rural or remote areas.

In addition to these 185,700 women who experienced partner violence and who left, the 2016 ABS’s Personal Safety Survey found, a further 275,000 women, had experienced violence from their current partner. This large group of women without children who experience such violence and women that did not leave are not addressed in this report.

The customised data is presented in the report in three (3) chapters:

Single mothers and their experience of past partner violent relationships

An almost forensic picture is presented in the disturbing data of the characteristics of the partner violence and emotional abuse from which these single mothers ultimately chose to leave.

Of the estimated 311,000 single mothers living in Australia in 2016, 185,700 (60% )had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a previous partner:

  • 73% reported that they experienced more than one incident of violence by their most recently violent previous partner.
  • Around 20% said they experienced violence ‘all’ or ‘most’ of the time by their most recently violent previous partner.
  • 90% (or 168,000 women) reported that the violence occurred while they were living with their previous partner, while 10 % of women did not experience violence while living with their partner – it began after they left.
  • For 86% of them, the violence occurred for the first time while living with their partner.

The consequences for mothers who fled partner violence

The shocking numbers of women who die as a result of partner violence are counted, but other consequences of partner violence are overlooked. No counts are made of:

  • The physical and emotional injuries, the hospitalisations, the permanent disabilities resulting from domestic violence.
  • The often-lifelong injuries to mental health or psychological well-being.
  • The health risks and other problematic outcomes for single mothers themselves who are often at risk of continuing to endure violence – especially from previous partners.

From partner violence to ‘policy-induced poverty’

‘It is domestic violence that breaks up families and leaves women to raise their children alone. But it is the state that forces them into poverty’ (page 22).

Many women separate from violent partners several times before they were able to make the final break. In many cases, the reasons they returned to their violent partners were financial; they simply did not have the money to stay away.

For women who have left violent relationships the most frequent consequence is severe disadvantage. Too many of these single mothers and their children live on the margins of society, their lives defined by never-ending financial stress and its accompanying health risks and anxieties.

There are insufficient shelters and refuges to accommodate the women who need emergency accommodation, a lack of available and affordable housing, and necessary support services, especially to help with employment, for women who have escaped partner violence and who want to rebuild their lives.

The report signals the need for urgent policy changes to ensure that women who wanted to leave violent relationships could do so without being forced into poverty, with devastating implications for them and their children that may last for generations. The findings suggest new ways of tackling the twin objectives: reducing domestic violence, and providing better support for the women who escape it.

Download or read the full report