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Financial abuse – Not all abuse is physical

I was not allowed to spend my own income on anything, including food for myself or clothes,'
Image: Shutterstock

Domestic abuse is one of the biggest social issues affecting women and children in the UK today. Crime+Investigation is #HereForHer with our charity partnerRefuge to help End Abuse Against Women.

Spearheading the Europe-wide End Abuse Against Women campaign, Crime+Investigation has partnered with Refuge, the UK’s biggest provider of support services for women and children. As part of the campaign, we’re launching Here For Her, which is all about raising awareness about domestic abuse and the various ways it can impact people’s lives. The #HereForHer hashtag will be a reminder that society will always be ready to support women and children in danger, and that domestic abuse will not be tolerated.

'I was not allowed to spend my own income on anything...'

Raising awareness means highlighting the fact that domestic abuse is not always about physical violence. A victim can instead be subjected to psychological manipulation, verbal threats, and systematic acts of intimidation and humiliation. A particularly devastating form of coercive control can involve money, with the abusive partner taking tyrannical control of the victim’s finances.

Financial abuse, also known as economic abuse, can manifest itself in many ways. An abusive partner might:

  • Demand complete control over a victim’s bank account and assets
  • Take out credit cards and loans in the victim’s name
  • Prevent the victim from accessing employment or education
  • Keep close tabs on the victim’s spending and financial affairs
  • Make the victim ask permission before they buy anything, no matter how small the purchase

As part of their My Money, My Life campaign in partnership with The Co-Operative Bank, Refuge conducted a recent study which revealed a staggering one in five people across the UK have suffered financial abuse, with 60% of cases reported by women. This hugely significant campaign featured quotes by victims which gave an insight into how financial abuse can have both a psychological and physical impact.

'I was not allowed to spend my own income on anything, including food for myself or clothes,' one victim reported. 'I got ill from hardly eating.'

Partly because of the revelations of this campaign, many of the biggest names in the UK banking sector – including the likes of Barclays, Santander and RBS – have committed to a Financial Abuse Code of Practice. They have pledged to raise awareness of financial abuse among amongst their staff. This will hopefully ensure that bank and building society workers 'have the skills and knowledge to provide support to customers who are victims of financial abuse', and will refer suspicions of abuse to bodies such as the Office of the Public Guardian and the Department of Work and Pensions.

This is a welcome step forwards for victims, but financial abuse continues to be one of the least well-known ways in which a partner can imprison someone within a toxic and dangerous relationship. While for some abusers, financial abuse is about money first and foremost – effectively making it a form of ongoing theft – for others it’s primarily a weapon that ensures their victim simply cannot afford to flee or start a new life elsewhere.

Escaping this predicament can therefore require careful planning. Take stock of all accounts and debts that are you in your name (perhaps running a credit check on yourself to see exactly what debts may have accrued in your name) and get help from organisations such as Citizens Advice or the Money Advice Service. Depending on your exact situation, you could create a secret 'escape fund' to slowly build up savings with which you can leave. This could mean opening a separate bank account, or even letting a trusted friend or family member store the money on your behalf.

Before taking any major steps, such as freezing a joint account with your partner, or withdrawing all your money without seeking the abuser’s 'permission', it’s important to assess whether you’re at risk of physical violence, and seek advice from the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline (0808 2000 247 in England, 0800 027 1234 in Scotland, 0808 801 0800 in Wales and 0808 802 1414 in Northern Ireland). This way, you can talk through your options and find out about specialist services and refuges in your community.

It’s important to bear in mind that one of the insidious things about financial abuse is that it isn’t always so savage or dramatic. It can be subtly parasitic in nature, with the abusive partner gradually living off their victim. As one woman’s account published on put it,

'Slowly, I started picking up financial burdens. At the time I would have said I was choosing to help willingly, but in hindsight, he would manipulate my emotions – early on, he moved a long way to live closer to me and used this as often as he could to win me around. He also would often say that I might as well leave if he couldn't afford to look after me – which made me feel upset and guilty.

'He wasn't paying off his credit cards, so I paid. He hadn't paid his car insurance, got caught out and the car was seized. I paid traffic fines. I paid for food and bills.'

This is why spreading the word on financial abuse is so important – so that people can recognise it even when the abuser doesn’t seem like a stereotypical bully or thug. Not only does financial abuse need to be better known, but better education about money management may also be invaluable at school-level, so that young people gain practical insights into how bank accounts, mortgages, loans, joint accounts and credit ratings work, and can understand how financially coercive relationships might unfold.