For women experiencing financial abuse, becoming a mum just became harder

Financial abuse remains a largely hidden epidemic.
Financial abuse remains a largely hidden epidemic. Photo: Supplied.

Presented by proud partner, Commonwealth Bank

Cassandra* had just returned from hospital with her newborn when she first heard the following words from her husband, 'I earn the income and I will make the decisions about what's best for our family'.

"He was the one who insisted I stop working but then he used my stay-at-home status to control every aspect of our lives," she explains. "I had no say in where we lived, where we went on holidays or where our girls went to school. I knew I was unhappy but I didn't realise I was in an abusive marriage until after we separated."

While distressing, Cassandra's* personal story is not uncommon. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, approximately one in four women and one in 13 men in Australia have experienced violence by an intimate partner and of those who seek support, up to 90 per cent are also affected by financial abuse.

A hidden epidemic

Unlike physical violence however, financial abuse remains a largely hidden epidemic, with many – particularly new mums – unaware that the control of the purse strings is an integral part of a larger, domestic and family violence issue.

"It can happen to anyone at any stage of life, but we know expecting a child can be a key risk factor for that abuse to escalate," explains Julie Kun, CEO of Women's Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE).

"Over 400,000 women will experience family violence during pregnancy and new mums are more vulnerable because many will be without their own income for the first time, they may be socially isolated and they're concentrating on their baby which can infuriate a partner who perhaps feels entitled to have the sole focus on them."

Of course, add a pandemic and an increased level of isolation into the mix and there's also the opportunity for these figures to inflate once again.

"We know with COVID-19, there have been cases where abusive exes believe this is the time to avoid paying child support and that their actions won't be followed up, but people need to know all services, including family violence services, are still open to provide help for those who need it," says Kun. "A pandemic cannot be used as an excuse; there are no excuses."

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Are you in a financially abusive relationship?

Financial abuse can differ between couples but it's essentially about controlling access to finances, be it a salary, pension or even sufficient funds to go about your daily life, says Catherine Fitzpatrick, general manager, community & customer vulnerability at Commonwealth Bank.

"It could be refusing to let you see bills or financial statements, scrutinising your spending without your consent or making all financial decisions without consulting you first, but the list of what constitutes financial abuse within the domestic and family violence context is actually quite extensive."

Other signs of financial abuse to keep an eye out for include, keeping financial secrets, stealing money from you or co-opting your wages, preventing you from going to work, getting a job or taking on additional study, refusing to contribute financially to you or the family, forcing you to take on debts in your name, hiding assets from you, and forcing you to work in the family business without pay.

"We always ask people to think about how they feel about raising the topic of finances with their partner," advises Kun. "If you feel real fear about what their reaction would mean for your emotional or physical safety, there's a problem there that needs to be examined."

Seeking help

There are three principles to healthily managing money within a relationship, explains Fitzpatrick. "The first is all financial decisions and responsibilities are shared, the second is that both partners remain transparent and the third is that both partners have an equal voice in financial decision-making," she says.

"Our Community Wellbeing team provides confidential support for any customer impacted by domestic and financial abuse, with services that can range from setting up "safe" accounts, securing accounts that might be compromised and looking at hardship arrangements in cases of debt, to assisting if someone's in an emergency situation by providing referral services to domestic and family violence organisations."

Proud partner, Commonwealth Bank. Always consider your personal circumstances before acting on financial advice.

For further information on how Commonwealth Bank can assist, visit their Financial Abuse portal.

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.