The economics of abuse

Family violence is headline news in Victoria these days. The Victorian Labor Government has established a much-needed Royal Commission into the support system, including a review of the justice system, government, service organisations, police, corrections, and child protection, with the aim of decreasing instances, improving victim support, and ensuring perpetrators are held to account. Susan Maury, Policy and Research Specialist with Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, argues that, as the least-understood form of family violence, economic abuse needs to receive significant attention.

Domestic Violence Victoria reports that:

  • 34% of Australian women have experienced violence from a partner or ex-partner.
  • Australia averages almost one death per week due to family violence.
  • Family violence is responsible for more ill-health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than any other risk factor. Chronic anxiety and depression account for 59% of this.
  • Violence against women is also costly to Victorians; in 2009 the cost totalled $3.4 billion.

Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, in conjunction with Kildonan UnitingCare, has conducted research that highlights the critical role that economic abuse plays in domestic violence. It incorporates a range of behaviours that “control a woman’s ability to acquire, use, and maintain economic resources, thus threatening her economic security and potential for self-sufficiency” (p. 564), and often overlaps with other forms of family violence with the intent to limit choice and maintain control. Lack of access to finances has been identified as the primary hurdle that stop women from leaving abusive relationships, or prompts them to return.

Economic abuse is therefore a critical leverage point for policy consideration, because it is through a lack of financial resources and controls that many women remain in abusive relationships. Often she is left to choose between continuing in the relationship and poverty – for herself and her children. For example, The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare’s report on homeless services indicates that domestic violence is the primary reason women access homeless services. In 2013/14 this totalled almost 85,000 people across Australia; 92% were women and their children (defined as under the age of 14). Lack of finances and resources leave women with poor options.

The Royal Commission provides a critical opportunity to expand effective responses to women experiencing domestic violence, and the evidence all points to using an economic lens to do so effectively. Some policy considerations that our research and that of others has uncovered include the following:

  1. Increased protection for victims of abuse who inherit debt from their abusers. Women leaving these relationships often find that, unbeknownst to them, they have debt in their names, sometimes for items or expenses which remain the property of their abuser. It is difficult to have debt waived or interest frozen, which often creates a spiral of debt and a poor credit rating at a time when she is most vulnerable financially. The recent report by the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre, for example, found that, while laws are in place to protect victims of violence from being pursued for debt of this type, these laws are often unknown and unenforced in the daily pursuit of debt collection.
  2. Increase access to affordable credit through formal banking institutions. Women who have separated from a violent partner, which often means severing social ties, quitting a job, and/or moving to a new location, need access to affordable and fair-practice credit in order to assist them in re-establishing their lives, paying off previous debt, and managing a household on one income. Banks and other formal lending institutions need to provide low-fee, accessible, short-term credit for women so that they are not reliant on fringe lenders. Despite the gender pay gapwomen are a better credit risk than men, and they hold significantly less debt. It takes on average 6 years for women to recover financially from a separation from a partner; access to fair and adequate financial support can decrease this length of time significantly.
  3. Improve regulatory and legislative frameworks to support equitable outcomes for women and girls. There needs to be a holistic response to entrenched gendered inequities such as proactively addressing the gender pay gap, reforming superannuation payments to address gender-based shortfalls, raising the level of pay for women-dominated sectors such as education, health, and social services. This rights inequities in the system more generally, thereby reducing women’s vulnerability to domestic violence, economic abuse, and poverty.

The factors that have allowed domestic violence to remain a hidden problem for so long in Australia have been entrenched in issues of culture and normative practice, including as they pertain to finances. The Royal Commission creates a formal opportunity to name and start to address some of these factors. Financial reform ought to be near the top of the list.

Posted by Kathy Landvogt