Australia

Financial abuse: The hidden side of domestic violence

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Around 16 per cent of Australian women will experience financial abuse. The big four banks all have policies to help.

Physical violence, verbal abuse and controlling actions are all forms of abusive behaviour, but a lesser known form, financial abuse, can be just as damaging.

It involves access to money and finances being restricted, or taken away altogether, and it is believed 16 per cent of Australian women will experience it in their lifetime. 

The figure rises to almost 90 per cent among people who have experienced domestic and family violence.

Co-convenor of the University of NSW Gendered Violence Research Network, Jan Breckenridge, said research shows those impacted are overwhelmingly female.

“There is a gender inequality around financial security”, she told SBS News. 

“Men, by and large, are much more literate financially, are expected to be in control of finances”.

The abuse can include restricting access to bank accounts or making victims give over their passwords, as well as blackmail, fraudulently using someone’s credit card, or getting them to sign financial documents without explanation.

And Professor Breckenridge warned the abuse doesn’t always end when a victim leaves – if they can.

“They leave with debt, they may leave with no housing,” she said.

“Where people leave and they’re financially insecure, they often return.”

As of 1 August this year, Australian workers can take up to five days of unpaid domestic violence leave.

The move came into effect less than a week after New Zealand passed similar - though paid - legislation.

Taking back control

The Australian Banking Association and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission both have guides to recognise financial abuse, encouraging organisations to work with customers experiencing violence or abuse to resolve any financial difficulties.

The big four banks all list policies to help both customers and employees in abusive situations.

In November 2017, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia launched a 12-month pilot Domestic & Family Violence Emergency Assistance Program, “providing access to independent specialist trauma counsellors, financial assistance, safe establishment of bank accounts and telephone support.”

In its first month alone, the program received more than 87,000 calls, and to date, some 6,000 people have accessed assistance. Around half of those who reached out were between 22 and 35 years of age, the majority from NSW, followed by Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

The service is now being extended, with an investment of more than $18 million into prevention and support measures across the community, including education for young people about gender equity, and national training for staff to identify those at risk.

Catherine Fitzpatrick, general manager of CBA's Group Customer Relations, said the service is available to customers aged over 16 who have had bank accounts with CBA for more than six months.

She said there was some initial scepticism when the organisation asked to consult with domestic and family violence groups on the plan.

“They were really surprised initially, ‘What would a bank want to do for its customers who are experiencing domestic violence?’” she said. 

“Our role is really to support people’s financial well-being.” 

Moo Baulch, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, said it is vital when a victim decides to leave an abusive situation, the support is there.

"I think for us to be living in a society today which gives people really strong messages saying domestic violence is not acceptable and if you’re not safe, you should leave, and then if the financial resources are not there on the other side, that can be a really disheartening experience for women.”

She said it is about giving people power back over their own lives – “a tough thing to do if you’ve had all of your decisions and choices controlled by a partner for a period of time."

More information can be found at CBA, NAB, Westpac and ANZ

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 anyone in Australia who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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