Australia

Advocates welcome push by banks to counter financial abuse, but hope it can reach migrant women

Advocates have welcomed a new assistance program by one of Australia's biggest banks to help survivors of financial abuse, but say more action is needed. Source: AAP

A new assistance program by one of Australia's biggest banks is being welcomed by advocates for survivors of domestic violence and financial abuse, but they say more action is needed to address the issue.

Advocates working to prevent financial abuse have welcomed a new support program offered by one of Australia's biggest banks but say for many migrant women, it can be hard to recognise the problem in the first place. 

The program by the Commonwealth Bank includes a team of 15 specialist staff trained to help those experiencing financial abuse, including through the use of interest-free loans.

As part of the initiative, financial coaching will be delivered by advocacy group Good Shepherd, available to all Australian residents regardless of their bank. 

The bank has also developed a guide - translated into 16 languages other than English - on the signs of financial abuse and how to rebuild after experiencing it. 

Commonwealth Bank spokesperson Catherine Fitzpatrick said the program aims to help domestic violence survivors achieve long-term financial independence.

"What we're trying to do is make it easier for victims to break free of the financial shackles of their abusers, to get help to start the next chapter of their lives; and then achieve long-term financial independence."

An academic on financial abuse and its impact on migrant women in Australia, professor Supriya Singh at RMIT University, welcomed the initiative, saying it marks a growing recognition that all sectors of society have a role to play in tackling the issue. 

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"It used to be seen as a private problem, something that happens behind closed doors and you don't really have to deal with it. But particularly in Victoria, after the Royal Commission [into Family Violence in Victoria in 2015], the state government recognises it is one of the most important law and order issues.

"So it is a social problem. And that has been the biggest development in the last two decades."

Increased funding for domestic violence survivors during the pandemic has been announced at a federal and state government level. 

The federal government in March announced a $150 million funding package to deal with increased reports of domestic violence during COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, the Victorian government announced $40.2 million in funding for crisis accommodation and specialist services, then in May the NSW government announced a $21 million funding boost for domestic violence support services.

However, Professor Singh fears many migrant women experiencing financial abuse may not be accessing the help they need. 

"There is a veil of silence. The worry is how many women are not calling for help. Firstly, because they don't recognise it as financial abuse, they don't recognise it as family violence. Or because they are living in such fear or under such surveillance that they cannot reach out for help.

"It is going to come over this once the [COVID-19] restrictions ease, and women can seek help without fear. That is my very big worry." 

Her research has looked at the role of cultural views on money and how that impacts financial abuse in Anglo-Celtic and Indian communities in Australia. 

She said the research showed there are additional barriers for women from migrant communities seeking help.

"It revolves around the gender of money, meaning the different cultural ways that men and women control, inherit and think of money in different cultures.

"Among the Indian group, for instance, money is traditionally owned by the family, rather than the couple. This idea is changing in India as women are more educated and they are in paid work even before marriage, but the rights of women are not so easily allowed. And that is what leads to a bit of different kind of financial abuse.

"You have a joint family system, but also a sense of entitlement, not just from the husband, but also from his family that the money belongs to them."

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She said it also happens to women who are not migrants - with the same sense of shame also preventing even well-educated, professional working women from seeking help.

"If it is only the woman's money going into the joint account and the man stops providing, stops contributing - the same joint account that is supposed to be a symbol of togetherness, becomes a medium of abuse."

"The denial of money, the control, the coercion, the sabotage, leaving the women without any financial resources - the effect is the same."

Dr Sabrin Farooqui works women from South Asian and African communities who have experienced financial abuse in domestic violence situations.

As president of the Cultural Diversity Network, she runs workshops to help victims of financial abuse move towards financial independence.

She said there are very distinct obstacles migrant women face. 

"For many first generation migrants, they are not aware of their legal rights. They are not aware of financial literacy, they don't know how to operate the banking system. 

"Many women come to Australia on a spouse visa and they're dependent on their husband's visa status. So they remain silent for a long time.

"They don't always understand they have been a victim of financial abuse.

"In these countries [South Asia, Africa], they have a traditional view of handling finance. I am from an Asian country [Bangladesh], and same with Arab countries. The male partner deals with the finance in the household, and the women find it hard to understand when it becomes financial abuse. They need to understand the difference between financial abuse and financial support."  

Dr Farooqui said she welcomed the Commonwealth Bank's program, but says much more support is needed to tackle the issue in migrant communities.

She said funding constraints has limited her ability to scale her model, but she hopes that her work can provide a model for other NGOs to adopt, particularly tackling employment.

"[Migrant women] come to Australia with the same level of skills as their male partners, but they're not in the job market as such. They do the casual work and entry-level jobs, and many of them prefer to stay home because the childcare payment is so high. Culturally, some women prefer to stay home. So these factors make them dependent financially on their husbands."

Professor Singh said a more comprehensive approach to addressing the issue needs to involve legal reform in all of Australia's states and territories.

Currently, Tasmania is the only Australian jurisdiction that recognises financial abuse as a crime. Otherwise, the activity is considered under 'family violence' in the Family Law Act, which is under review.  

She points to the criminalisation of financial abuse in England and Wales in 2015, and in Ireland and Scotland in 2019 as examples of what could be achieved. 

"Coercive control needs to be criminalised. At present, there is no signal from the law or from society that economic abuse is a crime. It is only the physical assault aspect of family violence that is a crime.

"What has happened in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, coercive control, this continuous pattern of coercive control and behaviour, that has been criminalised.

"Each incident might not seem like a huge thing, but over time it takes away all human rights and sense of self."

A survey of 10,000 people, conducted by the Commonwealth Bank, found 40 per cent had experienced financial abuse (26 per cent) or knew someone affected (12 per cent).

The survey found the most common form of financial abuse involved the perpetrator controlling their partner's wages for household expenses, while spending the money entirely on themselves.

Analysis of Australian of Bureau Statistics data shows 15.7 per cent of women and 7.1 per cent of men experience financial abuse in their lifetimes.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. 

Residents in metropolitan Melbourne are subject to stay-at-home orders and can only leave home for essential work, study, exercise or care responsibilities. People are also advised to wear masks in public.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus  

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