While most of the country’s attention is focused on the appalling cases of women who are murdered by their partners or ex-partners, experts say that one warning flag is present in all cases of such murders – financial abuse.
Speaking generally on the issue of domestic violence, Juliet Potter, founder of women’s homelessness charity White Caravan, says there was a direct link between financial abuse and the rising domestic violence death toll in this country. According to White Ribbon, one woman a week is killed by her current or former partner on average in Australia.
While not commenting on the cases before the courts, she said many Australian women were “trapped” in abusive relationships because they simply can’t afford to leave — and until that lesser-known factor was addressed, little would change.
“All roads lead back to finances,” she said. “The reason women are staying always comes back to money. If we can help them sort out their credit and get rid of default, this is massively beneficial for them in getting out a loan or credit card to get out and move on.”
Ms Potter said a lack of financial independence often caused women to remain in dangerous relationships, as the alternative was to “end up really struggling, couch surfing or homeless”.
She said getting finances in order could “literally be a lifesaver”.
“We are also very passionate about teaching young women and men entering relationships — especially if they want kids — to always keep control and to have independence around their own personal, separate finances,” she said.
“Combining income or having one partner as the responsible financial ‘controller’ is a model that has proven to be disastrous.”
Separation strategist Kate Boyden, who also works with White Caravan, said she focused on prevention and helping women avoid reaching crisis point.
She said the first step for women planning to leave dysfunctional and potentially abusive relationships was to find out where they stood regarding assets, income and liabilities, both individually and as a couple.
“Get copies of all finance-related documents you can, including loan or bank statements, employment contracts, share certificates and superannuation,” she said.
“These all feed into potential child support calculations so you need to know your net worth as a couple. For safety and security, don’t let your partner know you are investigating your finances — it’s often a tip-off you’re leaving.”
Ms Boyden said many women who leave their partners are financially disadvantaged, especially if they had a career break or reduced their working hours after having children.
Financial Abuse Common in Australia
Research from RMIT confirms that financial abuse is prevalent in Australia.
“Our research revealed that 16 per cent of women and 7 per cent of men had experienced economic abuse in their lifetimes,” RMIT’s lead researcher Jozica Kutin says.
“Economic abuse is systematic behaviour, not just poor financial decision making, and it’s used as a tactic to gain control of another person.”
Kutin’s research found nearly two in three women who were experiencing high financial stress and nearly one in four women with a disability or long-term health condition had a history of economic abuse, compared with the population average of about one in six.
Money is a powerful proxy with which to exercise control in relationships: curtailing a person’s financial independence curtails their autonomy. It renders victims – predominantly women – extremely vulnerable.
“It is another tactic in a perpetrator’s repertoire to dominate and control a partner.”
Officially economic abuse is defined as “controlling a person’s ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources, thus threatening her economic security and potential for self-sufficiency”.
In real life, Kun and Kutin say it manifests in a number of ways. It might be taking over or blocking access to a person’s bank accounts, or sabotaging their ability to study or work. It can involve debt being incurred in – or transferred to – another person’s name, forcing someone to account for every dollar they spend, or withholding funds so a person struggles to cover the basic costs of living.
Like other types of abuse, it presents as a repeated pattern of behaviour rather than isolated incidents, and often begins gradually.
“It’s not as obvious as physical or emotional abuse, so the financial stuff can be insidious. It starts out very subtly,” Kutin says. “Research from the UK shows the critical touchpoints are when a couple first move in or have their first baby.”
Kun sees it daily at WIRE and, like other forms of abuse, she says it doesn’t discriminate.
“It affects women of all cultures, all ages and all socio-economic backgrounds,” Kun says. “It’s a myth that women are financially abused because they are financially stupid or they don’t care – that’s not the case. They have had their confidence eroded because of the abusive relationship and they are told they are not competent enough to manage money.”