Prevention Corner: Economic Supports as Primary Prevention

Jul 02nd, 2021

by Nessia Ferneau

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many previously overlooked problems have come into the forefront of public conversation. One such issue is the impact of economic factors on sexual and intimate partner violence. This increased public recognition comes at a fortuitous time with a new presidential administration and an increase in legislation addressing sexual and intimate partner violence through an economic lens.

Paid family leave refers to policies that require workplaces to provide employees with guaranteed paid time off for family needs, typically including events such as the birth of a new child or a serious illness in the family. With the passing of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees from eligible workplaces became entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for family or health-related reasons. Since 1993, no additional federal legislation to provide more comprehensive leave has been passed, and the United States remains the only industrialized country without guaranteed paid family leave (Pantekoak, 2020). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17% of civilian workers, and 25% of state and local government workers had access to paid leave as of 2018 (U.S. Department of Labor, 2019). The majority of American workers are not afforded the ability to take time off from work without losing income. To remedy this, several states have passed their own paid family leave legislation, including California, New York, and Rhode Island. Currently, Maryland has no mandated paid leave policy (The People's Law Library of Maryland, 2020). Last legislative session, bill SB 211/HB 375, the Time to Care Act of 2021, was introduced by Senator Antonio Hayes and Delegate Kriselda Valderrama, with the full support of the Maryland Legislative Agenda for Women, an organization of which MCASA is a member (2021). If passed, this bill would have created a family and medical leave insurance program which would have offered up to 12 weeks of paid family or medical leave for employees (Maryland General Assembly, 2021). As explained by the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, “the bill would provide a continuity of income for persons needing to take time off to care for themselves, for a family member with a serious health condition, or for a newborn or newly placed adopted or foster child, or to take time needed for enumerated reasons related to a relative being deployed by the armed services...Senate Bill 211 is a reasonable and modest effort that demonstrates Maryland’s commitment to working families by helping to protect their health, stability and wellbeing (2021).” Unfortunately, the bill failed to get a vote in committee in both the House and Senate, leaving Maryland’s workers without paid leave access.

One of the biggest legislative initiatives of the new Biden-Harris Administration is the American Families Plan, a broad set of policies designed to economically benefit the American people, with a particular focus on children and families (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2021). One of the most promising policies included is a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, which would allow eligible workers to take 12 partially paid weeks off of work for reasons related to their families or their health. This plan is a welcome and necessary extension of the original FMLA, and if enacted, has the potential to positively impact much of the American workforce.

Research on paid family leave has shown the wide range of advantages it delivers, including a reduced infant mortality rate and an increase in overall household income (Stanczyk, 2019). One less immediately apparent benefit of paid family leave is its ability to prevent gender-based violence, including sexual violence and intimate partner violence (IPV), of which sexual violence is commonly a component. A wealth of empirical research has demonstrated the effectiveness of paid leave programs functioning as both primary and tertiary prevention for sexual violence in a number of ways.

Primary prevention involves actions taken to prevent sexual violence from initially occurring; this is often accomplished by preventing risk factors and promoting protective factors. Paid family leave can operate as primary prevention for sexual and intimate partner violence in three critical ways, outlined in a recent article published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine (D’Inverno et al., 2018). The first mechanism by which paid leave prevents violence is through the economic benefits it provides. There is a long history of research documenting the adverse effects of poverty on familial stress and conflict, factors that increase the risk of violence. For instance, there is a proven correlation between food and housing insecurity and sexual violence and IPV victimizations. Paid family leave works to reduce known risk factors for IPV like financial stress and poverty, thereby reducing the likelihood of sexual violence.

The second pathway of prevention involves the encouragement of egalitarian attitudes and practices. Endorsement of traditional gender roles is associated with a higher likelihood of sexual violence perpetration among men, illustrating the harmful impact that commonly held, non-egalitarian beliefs can have (Smith et al., 2015). The Biden Administration’s proposed paid leave policy allows both parents to take time off from work to care for a new child. This policy will prompt greater participation from fathers in domestic labor and parenting activities commonly performed by women. Research shows that in families where fathers take parental leave, childcare duties are split more evenly between both parents (U.S. Department of Labor, 2012). This increased male participation in domestic work can alter patriarchal norms and attitudes, which will in turn prevent IPV. In fact, research shows that fathers who are engaged in childcare duties are more involved with their children across the lifespan and are less likely to perpetrate IPV (Chan et al., 2017). Promoting male involvement in the family is a necessary step toward shifting harmful gender norms that are risk factors for IPV and other forms of sexual violence.

The final way that paid family leave prevents sexual violence is through the long-term process of creating healthier, happier families, which will contribute to the ideal development of children. Paid family leave allows parents time to bond with their newborns and is associated with a higher frequency and duration of breastfeeding, as well as with beneficial parenting practices over time (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention, 2016). Consequently, children raised by parents who have paid leave access will have better physical, behavioral, and mental health outcomes, with a far lower risk of mental illness, risky sexual behavior, or substance use. These favorable circumstances decrease the likelihood of adolescents perpetrating teen dating violence, which is itself a risk factor for the later perpetration of IPV. In summary, paid family leave helps to create an optimal environment for parents to raise children, leading to better outcomes for those children, who in turn are less likely to perpetrate violence against their own partners, first as teenagers, and then as adults.

An additional way that paid family leave can serve as a prevention tool is in its capacity as tertiary prevention. This level of prevention is directed at the lasting aftermath of sexual violence that has already occurred. In the context of paid family leave, this is accomplished by providing services and resources to survivors of sexual violence, including but not limited to legal, psychological, and financial support. The American Families Plan includes sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence victimization as valid reasons for an individual to receive paid leave. This flexibility allows survivors to access the care and support that they require without the fear of losing their income or job. The fear of losing one’s job after a victimization is well-founded; fifty percent of sexual assault survivors report needing to quit or otherwise leave their job after their assault (Legal Momentum, 2014). Additionally, the economic costs of workplace sexual harassment can be extensive, as detailed in a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (Hegewisch et al., 2021). In light of the significance of financial support for survivors, MCASA is increasing training on economic issues for survivors as part of its sexual assault advocate training.  This project, Money Matters, is continuing to develop materials to help identify financial issues and support survivors in addressing them.

Paid leave will provide survivors with financial support and job security while allowing them the ability to take care of their needs and recover from their victimization (National Partnership for Women and Families & National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 2019).

It is undeniable that the American Families Plan fills a gap in our nation’s approach to both economic justice and sexual violence prevention. With broad, bipartisan support, and copious benefits, paid family leave is a clear-cut step forward towards a more equitable and safe future (Horowitz et al., 2017).


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2019, February 27). Access to paid and unpaid family leave in 2018. The Economics Daily.

Chan, K. L., Emery, C. R., Fulu, E., Tolman, R. M., & Ip, P. (2017). Association Among Father Involvement, Partner Violence, and Paternal Health: UN Multi-Country Cross-Sectional Study on Men and Violence. American journal of preventive medicine, 52(5), 671–679. 

D’Inverno, A. S., Reidy, D. E., & Kearns, M. C. (2018, September). Preventing Intimate Partner Violence through Paid Parental Leave Policies. Journal of Preventive Medicine, 114, 18-23. ScienceDirect. 

Hegewisch, A., Forden, J., & Mefferd, E. (2021, July 21). Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment. Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Horowitz, J. M., Parker, K., Graf, N., & Livingston, G. (2017, March 23). Americans Widely Support Paid Family and Medical Leave, but Differ Over Specific Policies. Pew Research Center. 

Legal Momentum. (2014). Domestic & Sexual Violence and the Workplace. 

Maryland General Assembly. (2021). Labor and Employment - Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program - Establishment (Time to Care Act of 2021).

Maryland Legislative Agenda for Women. (2021). Maryland General Assembly.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. (2016). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect: A Technical Package for Policy, Norm, and Programmatic Activities. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

National Partnership for Women and Families & National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. (2019, October). Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence Need Paid Safe Days. 

Pantekoak, K. (2020, April 10). Paid Parental Leave in the U.S. vs. Other Developed Countries. FindLaw. 

The People's Law Library of Maryland. (2020, February 19). Family & Medical Leave Act and Parental Leave Act.

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2021, April 28). Fact Sheet: The American Families Plan.

Smith, R. M., Parrott, D. J., Swartout, K. M., & Tharp, A. T. (2015, April). Deconstructing Hegemonic Masculinity: The Roles of Antifemininity, Subordination to Women, and Sexual Dominance in Men’s Perpetration of Sexual Aggression. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 16(2), 160-169. 

Stanczyk, A. B. (2019, June). Does Paid Family Leave Improve Household Economic Security Following a Birth? Evidence from California. Social Service Review, 93(2). The University of Chicago Press Journals. 

U.S. Department of Labor. (2012). Paternity Leave: Why Parental Leave for Fathers is so Important for Working Families. 

Women's Law Center of Maryland. (2021). Maryland General Assembly.

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