When care becomes control - financial abuse cuts across cultures

The study examined how women experienced financial abuse across cultures. www.shutterstock.com

Carol, in her late 60s, had a joint bank account with her second husband. She put her A$60,000 in savings into it. Her husband didn’t have a regular wage but controlled the money, Carol also had a credit card but her husband monitored its use.

“I wouldn’t dare spend it on anything without speaking to him,” she said.

This use of a joint account to financially abuse is just one out of nine I encountered in a pilot study with my fellow researchers Marg Liddell and Jasvinder Sidhu. We examined how financial channels used to express care can also be used to control.

The pilot study is based on 40 interviews in metropolitan Anglo-Celtic and Indian communities in Melbourne and Sydney. There were 13 interviews with Anglo-Celtic women and 13 with Indian women with past experience of family violence (all have pseudonyms in this article). Another 14 interviews were conducted with community leaders and family violence service providers.

The women we interviewed all told of their partners monitoring, denying and restricting access to money. Men in these relationships also withheld their earnings from household use or stopped working, reducing their partner’s access to money, especially benefits.

In both the Anglo-Celtic and Indian communities cultural expectations around the way men and women manage and control money shape financial abuse in relationships. For example joint bank accounts are a symbol of commitment in Anglo-Celtic marriage.

But another stereotype of the man as the provider also proved to be a myth among the Anglo-Celtic women we interviewed. Of our 13 participants, ten husbands or partners didn’t provide financial support for their partners.

Karen, 60, said her husband stopped working two years after they got married. When he did work, he spent the money he earned on “men’s toys”, while she budgeted $1 a serve of meat per person.

In the Indian community money controlled by the male in the family, is a means of ensuring family protection and well-being. So, we found women in the Australian Indian community were slow to question the beginnings of financial abuse.

Fiona, 47, who used to work as a financial analyst, deposited her savings in her husband’s account. She said:

“I totally trusted him. I didn’t think I wanted to have my own account.”

Not all of our participants agreed to their husbands controlling their money. In the two stories we heard of women keeping their money separate from their partners, the marriage ended.

Asha, 32, an information technology professional and her husband had agreed to keep some money joint and the rest separate. After marriage, her husband pressed to control the household money. Asha said “He saw this as a trust issue.” The marriage ended in less than two years.

Money for most Indian families belongs to the family rather than the couple. For example a lot of Indian parents fund their children’s education in Australia, they also help if they can with housing and investment. In return, children, particularly sons, see it as their duty to care for their parents in terms of money and care.

But this dynamic can also lead to the husband feeling entitled to sending his wife’s earnings - without consultation - to his parents. One of our study participants Devi, 33 came to Australia on a student visa in 2006, with her husband who had a spouse visa. She said:

“Sometimes, I knew he had sent money to his parents and sometimes, I did not…”

In Indian communities a husband may also feel he can legitimately ask his wife’s family for money and assets. This is in cases where there may or may not be dowry (payments from the bride’s family when the couple marry). However our interviews showed this can also lead to a continual extortion of money from the wife’s family.

Devi said her parents did not pay a dowry, but they paid the couple’s travel costs for migration. Under pressure from her husband, her parents sold land in India to help them buy land to build a house.

Another study participant’s parents also sent over A$100,000 which went to her husband for his business.

These are just results from our initial research and we hope to continue studying this type of financial abuse in other cultures, regional and rural areas and from the perspective of men.

If families are more sensitive as to how culture shapes conversations about money and respectful relationships, it could help to prevent this abuse. It also raises red flags for family violence service providers about how financial abuse crosses cultures.

Hearing these stories, a woman who teaches service providers how to identify financial abuse in our study said:

“I began to think how I should talk about money with my four year old daughter.”

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