June’s* first husband would spend all his money on drinking, cars and clothes and leave her to pay all the bills.
After he had spent all his money he would take money from her to buy petrol or cigarettes and when there was no money there was physical violence.
“I had the biggest beating of my life over $5 – because I didn’t have it to give to him.”
For Sarah* it began when her first husband left her and she had to go into bankruptcy as she was guarantor for his debts.
When she met her second husband she had low self-esteem and just let him take charge of their finances.
They set up a business together but it went under with the Global Financial Crisis. Her husband wanted to buy another business but she didn’t want to go into business again.
Her husband went ahead anyway. After separating from him she found out the business loan had been secured against their home.
“He did the whole process without me, the bank never checked in with me, the broker never spoke to me and he used a lawyer I’d never met before.”
Both women have spoken out ahead of New Zealand’s first Economic Abuse awareness day to be held on Friday, joining with Australia, the UK and Canada.
Nicola Eccleton, social inclusion manager at Good Shepherd, a charity that provides low-interest loans to help people out of debt, is backing the awareness day.
Eccleton said economic harm was defined as controlling or restricting access to money and resources including access to employment, education and training opportunities.
“It is very much the stuff that happens in a domestic relationship.”
Economic harm is not new but it is only now being recognised as an area that needs far more awareness and strategies to help deal with it.
“Raising awareness is something we have wanted to do for a really long time because I passionately believe we are never going to address our family violence problem until we get on top of the money side of things.”
Eccleton said the vast majority of physical and sexual violence also occurred at the same time as economic harm.
She said not being able to access money, being pushed into stealing and being left with debt, were common issues people dealt with as part of family violence.
But it also occurred without the physical and sexual violence.
“That is things like people working in the financial sector, investment people saying to their wives of 20 or 30 years if anything happens to me you will never see a penny of my money because I have hidden it and you are not smart enough to work out where I have hidden it.
“It happens along a spectrum, across all sorts of social-economic areas. It happens in marriages where there is a business, mortgages being topped up without the other person realising, someone thinking that someone else is managing their money but actually they are doing it in an abusive way.”
She said the causes of economic abuse were complex but stemmed from traditional patriarchal issues that were still being dealt with.
“We’re only a few decades along from women being allowed to have their own bank account or loans without their husband’s sign-off.
“We haven’t come as far as we need to.”
Eccleton said often people didn’t want the relationship to end and it was important to be respectful of that.
“Our advice is if there is economic harm it can be useful to talk to a family violence agency because if there are other forms of harm and you need to get safe.”
Good Shepherd has developed resources on its website to help people who are not sure whether they are experiencing economic harm.
For those not facing physical violence, she recommends they talk to friends or family members or seek help through using the free financial mentor service MoneyTalks.
It’s unclear how prevalent economic harm is in New Zealand.
Ayesha Scott, a finance professor at AUT, said research in the UK found one in four to one in five women had been affected by financial abuse.
Scott is hoping to undertake research here to get localised data in the New Year.
“What we do know based on previous work from family violence data is that one in three women over their lifetime will be affected by physical or sexual violence. When we include psychological abuse over their lifetime it goes to one in two women and under current law in New Zealand economic abuse comes under psychological abuse.”
But Scott said economic abuse need to stand on its own and not just sit under psychological abuse.
“We think the consequences of this are so severe and long-lasting, we really need this to stand alone and have specialised responses to this because there are other organisations that could really get on board and help the problem.”
Those included banks, utility companies, telcos and government and welfare agencies.
Often people could end a relationship but still have a bad credit rating and not be able to get a mortgage or still be paying off a debt they were coerced into signing off.
“As long as we keep talking about it, it’s going to encourage banks, telcos, utility companies to start doing the right thing, start seeing it as their problem and something they can do something about.”
Scott said banks were having to start thinking about customer vulnerability due to regulatory pressure.
“What I want everyone to do is think about the victim/survivor as vulnerable.”
While the person might have ended the relationship it often took the other person’s permission to financially separate from them and they were still liable for jointly held debt.
“Unfortunately what we know at the moment is in an economic abuse situation those debts are likely to have been coercively if not fraudulently obtained and the economic benefit of going into or having that loan or access to that resource probably hasn’t been equitably shared.
“What we need is utility companies, telcos and banks to actually look at that situation with a little bit more expertise or more compassion.”
She said maybe the bank could waive some of it or the court could put pressure on by reassigning the separation of assets and debts in the relationship break-up.
“We can start thinking a little bit more outside the box and go, well hang on these organisations, these systems can do something that will impact this victim survivor so she is not still suffering the consequences of a relationship 10 years ago struggling to pay off a credit card bill when she has nothing to show for that.”
Martin King, who works for the BNZ and chairs the New Zealand Banker’s Association’s customer vulnerability working group, said banks had a role to play.
“As a bank, we cannot be the arbiters of relationships. We cannot be, we don’t become the de facto lawyers. But we definitely have a part to play.”
That included preventing bad things from happening by ensuring healthy joint financial decisions and then providing the right help when a couple separated.
“If you have a long period of sexually transmitted debt it doesn’t just – you don’t just click your fingers on separation and say that has all just gone away – so how do we as a bank treat that, acknowledge it?”
The BNZ set up a specialist support team a year ago that has been taking referrals from support agencies like Women’s Refuge and Shine.
And it has started taking referrals from other parts of the bank’s business including debt collection and recovery.
“It is very rarely that I would talk about banking being a case of life or death. But if we change the address incorrectly for a victim/survivor of domestic violence there may be an impact to their life. If we don’t look after them appropriately we are putting people in harm’s way.”
King said it had also been stepping in to prevent customers from using its payment systems to exert control and send abusive messages.
“We are contacting people and asking them to stop and also contacting the receiver of the payment and saying are you okay?”
King said some of the red flags it saw were cases where it was only allowed to contact one person for a shared debt.
“When we try and contact the other person we are told you can’t you are not allowed to, I can’t get hold of them. We will have separations where one person will disappear and one person is left that doesn’t have an income.”
In other cases, its bankers will hear a customer say they are not allowed to have a card for an account or have to take out debt in their name.
“We very rarely hear the words ‘threat’ or ‘violence’ but definitely hear ‘I was told to’ – those are flags and we need to do some digging and get the right people to understand what we can do.”
King said there needed to be greater recognition that economic abuse was part of domestic abuse and that it was also not gendered.
“Clearly the world over violence against women and girls is far more prevalent. But economic abuse is also prevalent within same-sex relationships, and for males. Not at the same levels but it does exist and it does happen.”
*Not their real names
• Good Shepherd is hosting an online panel discussion at 11am Friday on economic harm.
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