Research: Economic abuse in New Zealand

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Our 2018 research report explores economic abuse, specifically as a form of intimate partner violence (IPV), where men perpetrate violence against women in New Zealand. 

Economic abuse is a specific type of family violence that is causing or attempting to cause an individual to become financially dependent on another person, by obstructing their access to or control over resources and/or independent economic activity. 

Approximately half of all homicides in New Zealand are family violence-related, and, per capita, this family violence homicide rate is more than twice that of Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom.

Our research aims to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what economic abuse means in the New Zealand economic and social context. 

We acknowledge that men also experience economic abuse, however, in line with our mission, this work focuses primarily on women.

Introduction

Violence against women is an issue that every country is trying to address, and ultimately eliminate.

Reportedly, one in three (35%) New Zealand women experience physical or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime. When psychological or emotional abuse is included, 55% of women experience violence from a partner.

Economic insecurity is one of the key reasons many people do not feel they are able to leave violent relationships, and why some may return to violent partners. Economic insecurity is not only a consequence of family violence but is itself a form of family violence (as economic or financial abuse). 

Economic abuse is a specific type of family violence that is “causing or attempting to cause an individual to become financially dependent on another person, by obstructing their access to or control over resources and/or independent economic activity”.

Economic abuse is often, but not always, part of a pattern of abusive control that incorporates other forms of IPV, including physical, sexual and psychological.

However, awareness of economic abuse in New Zealand is quite low, and it has only recently been added to the legislative definition of family violence. 

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Key findings

Understanding and impact

Despite agreement across key stakeholders as to its widespread nature, economic abuse is not thought to be well understood in New Zealand.

There is a lack of common understanding or information, leading in turn to a lack of community and cross-sector awareness; and a lack of pre-or post-intervention frameworks to address economic abuse systematically.

Neither is the impact of economic abuse, including erosion of confidence and its implications on long-term financial, emotional and children’s wellbeing, thought to be understood.

Economic abuse is seen as an emerging but as yet largely unaddressed form of abuse in New Zealand. It is slowly gaining visibility following a greater emphasis on and understanding of family violence, in which cross-government work has raised awareness and improved responses.

Participants identified a number of interpersonal and structural factors that contribute to a lack of awareness of economic abuse, and complicate effective responses:

  • The taboo nature of discussing both money matters and domestic violence: it is difficult for women to speak of either their financial experiences or experiences of domestic violence when there is a culture of silence on these topics.
  • Patriarchal and cultural systems and expectations: including cultural norms and beliefs that looking after money is a male responsibility as the “head of the house,” while women look after children from pregnancy through to adulthood and beyond.
  • Financial systems: a culture of ‘easy credit’ and its availability, and male partners doing ‘cash jobs’ to avoid financial childrearing responsibilities.
  • Inadequate legal and other reforms: Women experiencing economic abuse have not benefitted from previous reforms to legal and government agency systems. In some cases, refuge or other family violence staff, such as financial mentors, workers in Work and Income, and some emerging practice responses by some banks were cited as good examples of workers who could identify economic abuse and attempt to respond.

However, participants felt the lack of awareness across all sectors led to a fragmented and frustrating response, which in many cases worsened the financial and social challenges of those impacted by economic abuse. 

“Although community family violence services have a better level of understanding to help people recognise that economic abuse may be happening, we are not always sure what to do with the information to assist the woman to redress the problem.”
– Research participant

Research participants named specific and extensive interpersonal and structural gaps in responding to the problem.

Of importance is that at all stages of intervention, the onus is on the woman to prove that economic abuse is occurring; and this in itself provides a challenge.

Economic abuse is intended to limit financial and other forms of agency, while navigating a fractured system also creates emotional, physical and financial drain.

Most often the evidence, or the resourcing to obtain it, is not generally or readily available to women.

A lack of clear definition, effective legislation and coordination across sectors has resulted in poor identification, protections and redress. In some cases, legislation can exacerbate the problem.

Specifically, changes to the family justice system mean women are often facing their abusers in court without proper legal representation.

Perpetrators can also use the court system to continue to inflict economic abuse on ex-partners through protracted legal proceedings.

Victims of economic abuse are subject to a range of negative outcomes. These can include poverty; debt, including debt that is itself a form of economic abuse and debt accrued from predatory lenders in order to make ends meet; homelessness; reduced employment or interrupted employment; difficulty in caring for or maintaining custody of children; and reduced access to mainstream financial resources.

Unlike other forms of IPV, economic abuse can continue long after the relationship has ended.

The negative outcomes for mothers and children can reach across the entire lifespan.

Developing an approach to economic abuse

Eliminating economic abuse will require a comprehensive, cross-sector approach, guided by people with lived experience, to examine and plan to address the underpinning historic, cultural and gender specific circumstances and attitudes that impact on women’s personal vulnerability to, and experiences of, economic abuse. 

This approach will identify and address structural factors, including legal, political, policy and practice approaches towards economic abuse, with an emphasis on co-designed, culturally relevant and responsive services that recognise the strengths and aptitude of women with lived experience.

Figure 2 provides an indication of the factors and responses to be considered, based on research findings, for an effective response to economic abuse. However, response is only a part of the solution, albeit an important part. Prevention and building recovery post-abuse are critical in order to minimise the incidence of economic abuse, while supporting recovery, both financially and socially. 

Figure 2: An enhanced response system for victims of economic abuse 

Coordinated response

Due to the nature of economic abuse, it requires an informed, coordinated response that starts with a knowledgeable workforce that can identify it when interacting with clients. Sectors in the front line include family violence services, legal services, banks, utility companies, police, Family Court, Work and Income, and budgeting services/financial mentors. Additionally, such initial contact must incorporate a culturally specific lens.

Community-facing campaigns can assist women to identify their own experiences as economic abuse, much as the successful ‘It’s Not OK’ campaign has done for family violence more generally. 

Recognition

Further, while it is an important step that economic abuse is now formally recognised in the Domestic Violence Act, it should be recognised as a form of abuse in its own right rather than a subset of psychological abuse; this will allow for holistic and appropriate responses that extend far beyond the psychological harm that economic abuse inflicts to address practical matters of financial security.

Key participants indicated that, while forms of economic abuse are often suspected or noticed by officials, there is a lack of referral pathway.

‘No wrong door‘

A ‘no wrong door’ approach was identified by key participants as an effective practice response to people experiencing economic abuse.

Ideally, women could access information and support through a number of ‘touch points,’ including universal services, financial institutions, police, legal or court interactions, housing, family violence, or culturally specific services.

This approach requires a targeted response that supports community and workforce capacity-building through shared awareness, information and a common language.

Lived experience

Any process should continue to draw on the lived experience of women and others affected, through consultation and co-design. Approaches should generate community awareness and provide a clear avenue for cross-sector involvement and support, while considering both short and long term outcomes for those affected.

Trialing new initiatives in local areas

Trialing new initiatives should be supported by locally-based cross-sector agencies, using flexible approaches to highlight legal and service response gaps and remedies, and a co-design component to ensure outcomes for victims/survivors are positive.

This would support ’on the ground’ learning and adaptation and potentially mitigate untoward/unplanned impacts of changed policy responses.

Related

This research was conducted with the support of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand (GSANZ)