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Women reduced to poverty by their partners

Women reduced to poverty by their partners – new research uncovers
New Zealand’s hidden economic abuse issue

Good Shepherd New Zealand is calling for increased awareness and action on the country’s hidden economic abuse issue, on the back of new research it has released.

The report, titled Economic Abuse in New Zealand: Towards an understanding and response’, reveals financial resources are being used to control the freedom of women and children, including access to food, heating and adequate accommodation.

Good Shepherd New Zealand, which supports women and girls experiencing disadvantage, developed the report in consultation with more than 50 frontline workers and policy makers – including community groups, financial institutions, government agencies, legal support services, and importantly, women with first-hand experience of economic abuse.

Key findings:

• Economic abuse – seeking power and control through economic means – is an unaddressed form of family violence in New Zealand
• Examples include: controlling a woman’s access to cash and bank accounts; vandalising the car to stop her getting to work; manipulating her into debt; refusing to pay child support; excluding her from major financial decisions; expecting her to provide for the family with minimal resources; intentionally dragging out court processes
• Women are subjected to a range of negative outcomes, including: unmanageable debt; homelessness; reduced or interrupted employment; difficulty in caring for or maintaining custody of children; going without food; heating and adequate accommodation; erosion of confidence; and reduced access to mainstream financial resources
• Lack of community awareness, government policy and regulation resulting in “poor identification, protection and redress”
• Good Shepherd New Zealand supports the new Government joint venture of 10 agencies to address family and sexual violence, and wants to see economic abuse highlighted within this approach

Mother of two and former business owner Sarah* never imagined she would be collecting food parcels and welfare payments.

Sarah’s husband of seven years developed a severe meth addiction, using deceit to fund his new lifestyle. This included manipulating her into re-mortgaging the house under false pretences.

When the truth eventually came out, she suddenly found herself a single mother burdened with debt, no income, a poor credit rating and the very real possibility of losing her home.

Four years later, Sarah is still fighting to regain the tens of thousands she is owed and which her husband refuses to pay. He will also only contribute minimal child support unless a protection order and a supervision order are lifted.

“The breach of trust is ridiculously huge,” says Sarah. “He has serious control over me and has taken away any sense of self-worth.

“Many people are also quite happy to look the other way, which adds to my social isolation.”

Good Shepherd New Zealand’s Social Inclusion Manager, Nicola Eccleton, says the research needs to be an important catalyst for action.

“It is alarming to see just how unknown and unaddressed economic abuse is in New Zealand,” says Nicola.

“Unlike physical abuse, there are no bruises or outward signs to act as evidence, and the onus is on the woman to prove that it’s happening.”

There are many methods of economic abuse, but the overwhelming theme is power and control that puts the woman in an inescapable state of financial dependence.

Examples include forcing her to provide for the family with minimal resources, undermining her ability to earn money, and restricting access to bank accounts – all factors that ultimately force her into a subservient position.

“One case was of a woman receiving the Working for Families tax credits as her allowance for running the home,” says Nicola.

“She received the $60 or $70 tax credit for family costs – groceries, bills, kids’ needs. Her husband had decided that was the value of the family-related costs, no discussion. Obviously, she was incredibly stressed and not able to make ends meet.

“This is quite different to making a decision about sticking to a budget as a partnership. It is straight out power and control. Vandalising the car so the woman can’t get to work, and therefore be financially independent, is also very common.”

The subsequent impacts are far-reaching, and often lead to long-term poverty, says Nicola.

“Women cannot access decent housing, have lost the confidence to hold down a job, and are not eating because they have spent all their money feeding their children. It creates a lack of financial security, which is often cited as the number one reason women don’t leave physically violent relationships.”

Good Shepherd New Zealand wants the Government to broaden its anti-domestic violence agenda to make economic abuse a form of family violence in its own right – rather than a subset of psychological violence, as it currently stands.

“While it is an important step that economic abuse is now formally recognised in the 2013 Domestic Violence Amendment Act, there are still no specific provisions for dealing with this type of family violence in isolation – contributing to the lack of awareness and understanding,” says Nicola.

“An economic abuse lens needs to be put over existing policies and responses.”

Current legal and regulatory conditions are inadvertently supporting and exacerbating the problem, according to the report.

“Despite good intent changes to legislation are either not strong enough, or, as in the case of Family Court reforms, unintentionally provided a retrograde step that in many cases allowed economic abuse to thrive,” the report states.

Says Nicola: “Delays and protracted legal proceedings that women cannot afford are all too common, and provide another way for abusers to inflict economic abuse.”

In Sarah’s case, she has had to “fight tooth and nail” to get a lawyer through legal aid.

“Meanwhile, he has the resources and means to pay for his own lawyer, and I am left struggling to make my case against him in court,” she says.

The report states that an integrated focus on factors such as stable employment, workplace policies and procedures, financial capability, affordable and safe housing, frontline support and referral networks, alongside coordinated government policies, needs to be considered.

“Current awareness campaigns are focused on the physical side of family violence, which Good Shepherd New Zealand hopes to broaden,” says Nicola.

“We want the issue of economic abuse to be more prominent in the ‘It’s not OK’ community awareness campaign, for example. We also believe any approach needs to draw on the lived experience of women and others affected, through consultation and co-design.

“Economic abuse and its impact on women and their children can be lifelong. It continues long after the relationship has ended, contributing to a cycle of intergenerational poverty. Intervention needs to encompass community, government, corporate and legal sectors.

“We also need to look at the factors that make women more vulnerable to economic and other types of abuse in the first place, and this means addressing the lack of financial security for women.”

Internationally, economic abuse is receiving widespread attention.

In the United States, high-profile tennis player Serena Williams is fronting a campaign to raise awareness and help women affected by financial abuse.

Britain’s former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is supporting a move to recognise economic abuse when the government puts forward a domestic abuse bill later this year. Legal changes could see alleged abusers prosecuted for “coercive and controlling behaviour”.

In Australia, a review of the Family Law Act could see economic abuse considered as a form of family violence affecting property settlements.

Closer to home, economic abuse is still Sarah’s reality. While she has managed to keep the house, due to the generosity of her parents, she is faced with lengthy legal proceedings and ongoing financial constraints.

“I have managed to get to a point where I am fighting back,” says Sarah. “I have studied full time and got a job, but I am still broke and the psychological effect of having no money is ongoing.

“Having to be financially dependent on my parents at this age is disheartening. I have also spent a lot of my kids’ childhood on the phone talking to lawyers and welfare agencies. I feel they have really missed out on me.

“People don’t get it – it may look like everything is the same, but it couldn’t be more different.”


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