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Tackling economic abuse of women must be part of our domestic violence response

Women are more likely than men to be victims of economic abuse. shutterstock

Australia is making long-overdue moves aimed at stopping domestic violence. These responses focus almost exclusively on physical injury and death.

Consequently, we are not recognising the existence and impact of less obvious forms of abuse that damage women’s well-being. One particularly widespread and insidious example is economic abuse.

What it is

Economic abuse includes behaviours that limit a person’s ability to acquire and use economic resources. Women are more likely than men to be victims of this form of abuse.

Research has identified a typology of four behaviours:

  • controlling a partner’s acquisition of economic resources (including interfering with education and employment);

  • preventing a partner’s use of resources;

  • deliberately generating debt or exploiting a partner’s resources; and

  • refusing to contribute to expenses.

These are not the equivalent of disagreements over money. They are controlling and humiliating behaviours, which abusers use to undercut women’s economic security and independence.

The majority of women seeking support for domestic violence describe experiencing economic abuse. Typically, it is linked to psychological, emotional and often physical abuse, although women may experience economic abuse even when they are not physically hurt by their partner.

Australians are less likely to recognise economic abuse as abuse compared to physical forms of violence.

How it affects victims

Economic abuse has wide-reaching effects.

It leads to women’s and children’s material deprivation and social exclusion while living with an abuser. It is difficult for a woman to leave a physically violent partner when she is financially dependent on him. When an abuser limits access to economic resources, his partner will struggle to secure stable housing and meet day-to-day costs when she does leave.

Interfering with education or employment can make it difficult for women to find a job. Those women who have experienced economic abuse are less likely to do well in financial settlements on separation. Women may be jointly responsible for debts accrued by their abusive ex-partner.

Economic abuse magnifies the financial precariousness women face through lower pay, fragmented paid work and insufficient superannuation.

In short, economic abuse can contribute to a lifetime of economic struggle for women.

Economic abuse does not necessarily end when a relationship does. After separation, abusers can use institutional processes to continue their controlling behaviours. Men can use family law and child support processes as a way of directly or indirectly controlling their former partner and undermining her financial security and self-reliance.

My recent research has also highlighted the ways in which men under-report income, withhold child support or request multiple changes of assessment as part of a broader campaign of control over their former partners.

How to respond

The first step is to take economic abuse seriously. This necessitates a shift in how we understand domestic violence more broadly.

Public and policy responses to violence against women are most commonly informed by what American activist and academic Evan Stark has described as the domestic violence paradigm. This equates abuse with discrete incidents of violence. Australia’s dominant paradigm does not recognise the power dynamics at the core of ongoing abuse.

In contrast, coercive control identifies power, not physical violence, as the crux of domestic violence. It provides a more accurate insight into the diverse strategies abusers adopt to render their partners fearful, vulnerable, isolated and dependent. Economic abuse is one such strategy of domination, limiting the victims’ agency and autonomy.

Within this understanding, it is not surprising that existing legislative responses to economic abuse have not been particularly successful.

For example, Victoria’s Family Violence Protection Act includes economic abuse within the definition of family violence. The Act defines economic abuse as coercive, deceptive or unreasonably controlling behaviour that denies economic or financial autonomy or necessary financial support. Family violence intervention orders can be sought and include conditions that address economic abuse.

The possibilities of such legislation have not been matched in their implementation. Women’s Legal Service Victoria highlights a range of legal and administrative barriers to effective responses to economic abuse.

Within the family violence legal system, there is a lack of police and magistrate understanding of the dynamics and presentation of economic abuse. This is buttressed by intervention order conditions that are typically designed to address property issues rather than the dynamics of control.

More broadly, addressing economic abuse – particularly post-separation – requires changed policies and practices in the child support and family law systems, and in telecommunications, banking and energy services. Abusers appropriate all as tools for limiting women’s economic resources and independence.

The potential and complexity of a complete approach to domestic violence is striking in the instance of economic abuse. But momentum for reform should not stop at the most dramatic expressions of abuse. To do so would be to fall far short of a “cultural shift” and the achievement of the gender equality necessary to end domestic violence.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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