“I can’t ring Telstra or the electricity company or the bank to discuss a bill or an issue because everything is in his name.»
This behaviour is typical of financial abuse, says Julie Kun, chief executive of the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE).
“Financial abuse primarily, like all other forms of family violence, is about power and control,” said Kun. “So it is where one partner has taken power and control regarding financial decision making away from the others.”
Financial abuse can be denying someone the capacity to earn money by not allowing them to study or to have a job. It can be withholding financial documentation such as bank account details, leaving victims financially incapacitated. It can be criminal activity, such as fraudulently taking out loans or coercing people to take out loans or take out their debt.
Another acquaintance had a well-paid job that she enjoyed when she met the person who would become her fanancial abuser. Shortly after they moved in together, he began questioning any expenditure and grew increasingly abusive. She stopped getting her hair cut and her clothes became threadbare. He put pressure on her to quit her job and racked up thousands of dollars of debt in her name.
“When I eventually left him I was sleeping in a single bed at my brother’s house with my six week old baby and my 10 year old son on a mattress on the floor next to me. I was just one step from homelessness,” she says.
She has rebuilt her life, retraining as a nurse and moving into her own home with her children. But it hasn’t been easy; she had to draw upon her superannuation to help clear the debts her partner accumulated in her name and, due to the increased financial stress, suffered a nervous breakdown. As a result, she is currently under the care of a psychiatrist.
“I’m now faced with the reality that I probably won’t ever retire,” says Helen.
“[Financial abuse] often gets dismissed because it’s not physical,” says Kun. “But we see people that twenty to thirty years after they’ve left the abusive relationship are still struggling to financially survive. Because it’s not that they end up with nothing, they often end up with less than nothing.”
Kun said between 90 and 99 per cent of women seeking help from family violence services have financial abuse occurring, noting that financial abuse often takes a backseat to other critical forms of abuse. And yet, access to financial support can make the difference between staying in an abusive relationship and having the means to leave.
As evidenced by both Sabrina and Helen’s account, it isn’t just disadvantaged or financially illiterate women who are at risk of falling victim to financial abuse – women from all walks of life are at threat. Even Mel B, a Spice Girl and bastion of Girl Power, claims to have had her finances controlled by her abusive ex-husband. Professional, white-collared and charming, the perpetrators in these cases don’t always fit into our mould of what an abuser should look like.
“Exposure to poverty stress or inequality of course is going to possibly affect an outcome for someone but actually it’s the systems and structures we live in that inform inequality. Anyone can go through it,” says Delia Donovan, the newly appointed CEO of White Ribbon. “It’s not about what you earn. Domestic violence is entrenched into society.”
“As a society we need to show every community member that this is not acceptable and one of the ways we do that is we criminalise something,” says Kun, who is calling for a similar legal reform to that of the UK, who introduced legislation earlier this year to criminalise financial abuse.
At present, Tasmania is the only Australian state where financial abuse is recognised as a crime, elsewhere it falls under the umbrella of ‘family violence’ in the Family Law Act, which is currently under review.
However, Angela Lynch, the chief executive of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland, would prefer we take a wait-and-see approach, noting that criminalising financial abuse won’t be a quick fix to what is an incredibly complex problem.
“I would like to see how that goes [in Britain] for a couple of years and see an analysis of that from a domestic violence perspective and from a victim perspective of how successful has it really been,” says Lynch, who points out that it is incredibly difficult to encapsulate economic abuse into a crime.
“My concern is that [the legal system] could easily be used against victims because perpetrators are quite adept at talking to the police, they’re quite charming, they’re quite good at using systems and also using litigation.”
Instead, Lynch would prefer limited resources to be channelled into avenues such as the Women’s Legal Services to help give victims an outcome that helps her instead of being thrown at the costly criminal process.
“In terms of responding to domestic violence the need is never going to be a one approach solution fix it,” concludes Delia. “Sadly we live in a world where right now we need prevention and we need response.”
*Names have been changed for legal reasons.
To find a financial counsellor, call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007.
For anyone experiencing sexual assault or domestic and family violence, call 1800-RESPECT.
WIRE offers a free information and referral service for Victorian women: 1300 134 130.