Amid protests by social sector organizations in Austria, a debate has resurfaced in national media concerning the precarious financial situation of the institutions involved in responding to domestic violence and abuse.

The (financial) cost of Domestic Violence

Amid protests by social sector organizations in Austria, a debate has resurfaced in national media concerning the precarious financial situation of the institutions involved in responding to domestic violence and abuse. The Austrian state currently provides a budget of ten million Euros annually1 for prevention of violence against women and measures to improve equal opportunity. In stark contrast to this number, an alliance of over forty organizations involved in combating violence (including domestic abuse), has demanded an increase of this annual budget to the sum of 210 million Euros. This sum envisioned by the alliance GewaltFREI Leben (Living Free of Violence) is intended not only to remedy chronic underfunding of social sector organizations, but to finance a comprehensive long-term action plan to combat violence against women and children, including funds for research, international cooperation, and necessary improvements to the judicial system. Underlying this debate, and taking place during ongoing budget negotiations of the recently elected government, is a tangible tension between current public spending on prevention against violence and what is perceived to be the broader (financial) cost of domestic violence itself.

Enumerating the cost of domestic violence

1998 saw one of the first comprehensive attempts to calculate the national cost of domestic violence in a European country. In their study2, Godenzi and Yodanis enumerated the cost of physical, sexual and psychological violence in Switzerland with the equivalent of 262 million Euros annually, including expenditure in law enforcement and judiciary, medical treatment, and victim's support in the social sector. Six years later, Sylvia Walby3 placed the cost of domestic violence in England and Wales at 33,1 billion Pounds. Her methodology included costs to the criminal justice system, health care, social services, housing and refugees, as well as civil legal services. Moreover, she included lost economic output due to victimization as well as the human and emotional costs, based on estimates of what people would be willing to pay to avoid such injuries. Silvia Sacco's 2017 study4 for Germany estimates the annual costs at 3,8 billion Euros including similar intangible costs such as the loss of quality of life by victims of domestic violence. In Finland, Piispa and Heiskanen5 (2001) estimated the costs of violence against women, perpetrated in particular by their ex-partners, to be 50 million euros annually. They included direct costs to law enforcement, judiciary, prisons, health care providers and social sector organizations, as well as indirect costs in the form of loss of productivity and income. A similar study for Austria6 by Birgit Haller and Evelyn David (2005), placed the direct and indirect costs based on verifiable actual expenditure at 78 million Euros annually, while stressing the detrimental lack of statistical and financial data collected on the topic.

Lessons from the calculus of domestic violence costs

Despite their brevity, the above descriptions of the methodological approaches used to enumerate the financial cost of domestic abuse reveal three things: First, the figures arrived at in the different cases are hardly comparable. Secondly, they make immediately evident, that the cost of mitigating the effects of domestic abuse after the fact, dwarfs the expenditure on attempting to counter domestic abuse in the first place. In the Austrian case, based on Haller and David's approach, by a factor of eight. Thirdly, the divergent approaches for enumeration and the multiplicity of areas these costs crop up, hint at the scope of the problem that domestic violence represents for society. As many of the scholars referred to have pointed out, this widespread financial cost, though not readily visible through the complex allocation of funds, nevertheless speaks volumes about the urgency for action.

The function of the cost argument

The cost argument against domestic abuse, powerful and self-evident though it may be, must however be made carefully. On the one hand, it clearly illustrates that money saved on violence prevention is seldomly money saved in earnest. On the other hand, the insidious nature of cost-benefit arguments must be constantly at the forefront of the mind, when making the case for funding of interventions and financing support relating to domestic abuse. The motivation for combatting domestic abuse must never be exhausted by the financial incentive to reduce costs. Rather, the reason to combat domestic abuse must ultimately stem from a fundamental objection to this type of violence in itself.

The social sector protests in Austria were sparked by regional government decision to issue new tenders for two women's shelters. This would encompass the dissolution of these institutions, including the decades of experience and networked relationships with other actors in the region. Though the current debate entails more than this dimension, the logic of financial efficiency represents a heavy weight in the probable developments to come. So, while the cost of domestic violence argument may embolden a discussion on the reallocation of funds being spent to mitigate the effects of structural violence (mostly against women), to mitigating causes and offering support, we must be careful not to play into the marketization of aid and assistance.

1 https://www.bmf.gv.at/themen/budget/das-budget/budget-2018-2019.html
2 Godenzi, A., & Yodanis, C. L. (1998). Erster Bericht zu den ökonomischen Kosten der Gewalt gegen Frauen. Universität Freiburg.
3 Walby, S. (2004). The cost of domestic violence. Women and Equality Unit (DTI).
4 Sacco, S. (2017). Häusliche Gewalt Kostenstudie für Deutschland. Gewalt gegen Frauen in (ehemaligen) Partnerschaften. Hamburg: Tredition.
5 Piispa, M., & Heiskanen, M. (2001). The price of violence. The costs of men's violence against women in Finland. Statistics Finland and Council for Equality, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Helsinki.
6 Haller, B., & Dawid, E. (2006). Kosten häuslicher Gewalt in Österreich. Institut für Konfliktforschung. http://www.ikf.ac.at/pdf/kosten.pdf

by Paul Herbinger (VICESSE)