A literature and policy review
ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse: a Literature and Policy Review
A joint project of Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service and Kildonan UnitingCare
Project Steering Group:
Kath Deakin, Sue Fraser, Karen Hucks, Emily Jackson and Kathy Landvogt
Macdonald, Fiona ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse: a Literature and Policy Review
(Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service and Kildonan UnitingCare, 2012)
Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service
PO Box 6041
North Collingwood Victoria 3066
© Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service and Kildonan UnitingCare
This literature review is written as part of the ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse Project, a joint
initiative of Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service and Kildonan UnitingCare. Both
organisations provide services to some of the most vulnerable people in our community. These
services include family violence intervention programs, financial counselling and financial
inclusion initiatives such as financial literacy education and microfinance. The ong>Spotlightong> on
Economic Abuse Project emerged from the organisations’ shared concerns about the impacts of
economic abuse on the women accessing their services.
List of Abbreviations ........................................................................................................................ i
Executive Summary ....................................................................................................................... ii
Economic Abuse ............................................................................................................................3
Influences, Impacts and Points of Intervention ............................................................................13
Public Policies and Practices .......................................................................................................23
Legal and Regulatory Frameworks ..............................................................................................37
Employment Frameworks, Policies and Practices .......................................................................47
Community Services Policies and Practices ................................................................................50
List of References ........................................................................................................................55
List of Abbreviations
Australian Bureau of Statistics
Australian Communications and Media Authority
Australian Communications Consumer Action Network
Australian Institute of Health & Welfare
Australian Law Reform Commission
Australian Securities and Investments Commission
Australian Taxation Office
Council of Australian Governments
Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
Domestic Violence Victoria
Department of Employment and Workplace Relations
International Violence Against Women Survey
New South Wales Law Reform Commission
This literature review has been written to support the ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse Project,
a joint advocacy initiative of Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service and Kildonan
UnitingCare. Both organisations provide financial counselling as well as other supports to
families on low incomes and both provide services responding to family and domestic
violence. The ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse Project emerged from their shared concerns
about reports of economic abuse being experienced by women accessing their services.
In Australia economic abuse has only recently been recognised in some legal jurisdictions as
a form of family and domestic violence and there is a low level of public awareness of it. The
ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse Project aims to identify systemic issues to facilitate initiatives
within government, corporations and community service sectors for the prevention, early
intervention and mitigation of economic abuse.
As a step towards these goals, this paper presents a review of national and international
research and other literature relating to economic abuse in Australia. It also aims to identify
key issues and sectors for intervention.
Economic abuse—which is also referred to as economic violence, economic control,
economic deprivation, financial abuse and financial control—is a form of domestic and family
violence, involving behaviours that negatively affect a person financially and undermine that
person’s efforts to become economically independent (Weaver et al. 2009).
Adams et al. (2008, p. 564) describe economic abuse as involving behaviours that “control a
woman’s ability to acquire, use, and maintain economic resources, thus threatening her
economic security and potential for self-sufficiency”.
In definitions of family and domestic violence in the Australian state and territory family
violence laws that include economic abuse, it has been formulated as including:
unreasonable controlling behaviour without consent that denies a person financial autonomy;
withholding financial support reasonably necessary for the maintenance of a partner;
coercing a partner to relinquish control over assets; unreasonably preventing a person from
taking part in decisions over household expenditure or the disposition of joint property;
coercing a person to claim social security payments; and preventing a person from seeking
or keeping employment (Australian Law Reform Commission/New South Wales Law Reform
Commission [ALRC/NSWLRC] 2010, pp. 196-197). 1
There is very little information about the prevalence of economic abuse in the population in
Australia as, historically, it has not been included as a form of domestic and family violence
in the law nor has it been included in definitions of violence used in surveys. However,
research findings suggest economic abuse may be a very common form of violence affecting
women who seek assistance because of domestic and family violence.
1 These formulations are drawn from the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) s 6; Intervention
Orders (Prevention of Abuse) Act 2009 (SA) s 8(5); Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas) ss 7, 8; and the
Domestic and Family Violence Act 2007 (NT) s 5. The full definition of economic abuse in the
Victorian legislation is given in full in Appendix B of this report.
Influences, impacts and points of intervention
Unequal power in a relationship–including economic power–can provide the conditions that
allow or enable domestic violence to occur by making it difficult for (the mostly) women to
leave relationships in which they experience violence (Lyon 2000). A lack of financial
independence has been found to be a major factor influencing a woman’s decision to remain
in an abusive relationship (Anderson & Saunders 2003). Thus, reducing economic
dependence and improving women’s financial security may be essential for leaving a violent
Patterns of vulnerability to economic abuse may be similar to patterns of vulnerability
identified for domestic violence more generally. Surveys identify young women aged
between 18 and 24 years as particularly at risk of experiencing domestic violence and
women are also identified as being at higher risk of experiencing violence in the periods prior
to and following separation from a partner and during pregnancy (Mouzos & Makkai 2004;
There are some factors common in older age groups that have implications for effective
responses for older women experiencing domestic and family violence, including reluctance
to report violence, financial problems and financial dependence (including barriers to
employment), and health and care issues, all of which may make it difficult for women to
leave abusive relationships (Bagshaw, Wendt & Zannettino 2009; McFerran 2009; Straka &
Increased risks may also be associated with rurality, race and culture. These risk factors are
related to barriers to seeking help including cultural norms, low English language skills
and/or accessibility of appropriate services and information. Other women who may face
such barriers include: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women with disabilities,
women with mental health issues, women who are lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex
people; and women who are asylum seekers, refugees or recent migrants applying for
residency or work visas.
There has been little research specifically examining the impacts of economic abuse on
children, families and on the community. Some of the direct and most apparent
consequences for victims of economic abuse are the financial or economic consequences.
These are consequences for people while they are in violent relationships, on leaving violent
relationships, when attempting to gain financial stability following exit from violent
relationships and on their prospects for economic security in the long term.
Economic dependence on an abusive partner can be a critical obstacle to leaving the
relationship (Adams et al. 2008). In addition to victims being unable to access funds needed
to leave, domestic violence can cause social isolation which reduces options for leaving
(ALRC/NSWLRC 2010). However, while concerns about financial insecurity—including
concerns for its impacts on children—are one reason women stay in abusive relationships
they can also provide the impetus to leave relationships (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2010).
Economic impacts of domestic and family violence identified in various studies include
impacts relating to:
debts, bills and banking
accommodation and household goods
social security and other material supports
Public awareness and understanding of these issues is poor. Responses to a 2009 national
survey of community attitudes to violence against women show that, while awareness of
domestic violence as a serious issue has increased, recognition of non-physical
behaviours—including economic abuse—as forms of domestic violence remains low.
Findings included that 25 per cent of survey respondents did not believe that “controlling a
partner by denying them money” was a form of domestic violence (compared with 33 per
cent in 1995) (Victorian Health Promotion Foundation [VicHealth] 2010; McGregor 2009).
Public policy and practice
At the broadest level economic abuse may be addressed through the achievement of
equality for women. This has been a strong theme in recent public policy in Australia and
there have been some recent positive outcomes for women specifically in relation to
While prevention has been a key focus of recent policies to address violence against
women, there is little evidence of any specific attention to raising community awareness of
economic abuse as an aspect of domestic and family violence as a preventative strategy.
Public policies framing tertiary responses to violence have a strong safety focus, including a
focus on physical safety at the point of crisis and on stopping further violence. An additional
focus on women’s longer-term wellbeing, including their financial wellbeing, is needed to
address economic abuse.
The Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) recent review of legal frameworks relating
to family violence produced recommendations to improve responses for people experiencing
violence in the social security, family assistance and child support systems. The
implementation of these recommendations should assist to stop the continuation of
economic abuse after women have left relationships and to mitigate the impacts of abuse.
There is limited research that identifies women’s pathways through legal systems to regain
economic security following domestic violence and this is an area in which further
information is needed. There is also a need to identify appropriate strategies for building
women’s financial capability.
Legal and regulatory frameworks
The recent inclusion of economic abuse in the Commonwealth Family Law Act 1975 paves
the way for a common framework for domestic and family violence in a wide range of legal
and regulatory instruments that impact on protections for women and on responses to
Similarly, the take-up of the ALRC’s recommendations for changes to relevant laws and
guidelines of Fair Work Australia, Safe Work Australia, Department of Education,
Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and Job Services Australia the Australian
Prudential Regulation Authority, Department of Human Services, Australian Taxation Office
(ATO) and superannuation fund materials should see improved responses to economic
Currently, there are a number of gaps in protection for temporary visa holders and potential
for change in relation to Migration Review Tribunal fees for women experiencing domestic
and family violence.
More information is needed with regards to how legal processes in relation to victims’
compensation and property settlements can operate to support effective responses to
The extent of abuse in relation to self-managed superannuation funds could be monitored to
establish if there is a need for responses in addition to the changes to guidelines for trustees
that were recommended by the ALRC.
The ALRC has recommended that there is easier access to superannuation funds prior to
retirement for women experiencing violence. While this may be extremely helpful to women
who need funds at a time of crisis, there is a very strong argument for the development of
alternative options through the income support system or some other arrangement. The
depleting of women’s superannuation savings may create disadvantage in the long term.
Consumer protection is a crucial area of regulation for women experiencing economic abuse
because it affects the forms economic abuse can take, women’s ability to stop the abuse,
their ability to manage financially on leaving a relationship, and their options for reestablishing
financial security and wellbeing. As recent consumer credit reform has not
substantially improved protections, it is imperative that women have access to appropriate
financial products so they are not forced to rely on high interest loans and credit.
Consumer protection in relation to other products and essential services relies heavily on
voluntary codes and company policies. Therefore there may be a need for education and
information for individual providers to raise awareness and understanding of economic
abuse and to identify appropriate responses, including in relation to hardship policies.
Employment participation, supportive workplaces and safety at work
There remain significant gender inequities in relation to opportunities for participation in, and
remuneration for, work and this continues to be a key issue for all women including for the
prevention of economic abuse.
Responses to violence at the workplace level can ensure women are safe at work and
provide support for women who experience violence. Currently in Australia there appears to
be considerable momentum to implement these types of interventions. However, for the
achievement of change which includes protection for women employed in smaller
enterprises, there needs to be change to the National Employment Standards, the Fair Work
Act and/or to anti-discrimination laws.
Community services sector
Key services and programs relating to economic abuse include domestic and family violence
and general services such as financial counselling, legal assistance, accommodation
assistance, material aid and financial education programs.
Identified gaps in community sector responses include post-crisis services and services
which address issues relating to the long-term impacts of economic abuse and domestic
There is a need for greater support and individual advocacy for women around financial
issues following domestic violence and there may also be a need for training, information
exchange and collaboration between different types of services—including between financial
counselling and domestic violence services.
It is not clear how well economic abuse is understood and responded to by service providers
in different sectors. This is also the case in regard to any collaborations and innovative
service models which might be providing effective responses.
Financial literacy education and financial capability building have been identified as
preventative measures and as responses for women who have experienced violence. There
is a need for a better understanding of the appropriate contexts for providing financial
literacy education to women experiencing economic abuse, including the potential for
‘mainstream’ community-based education programs to fill this role.
This literature review has been written as the first part of the ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse
Project, a joint advocacy initiative of Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service and Kildonan
UnitingCare. The project emerged from the organisations’ shared concerns about economic
abuse being experienced by women accessing their services.
Both Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service and Kildonan UnitingCare provide services to
some of the most vulnerable people in our community. These include family violence
intervention programs and financial counselling. Both organisations have also been leaders
in the development and provision of financial inclusion initiatives such as loans and savings
programs for women. Kildonan UnitingCare provides violence prevention and intervention
programs for men, women and children including individual and group work responses and
men’s behaviour change programs. Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service operates the
Mornington Peninsula Family Violence Program which supports women and children
experiencing domestic violence and provides other women’s counselling and peer support
programs. Workers at both organisations have encountered harrowing stories of economic
abuse leading to acquired debt, poverty and homelessness.
Economic abuse has often been overlooked in the spectrum of domestic and family violence.
In Australia economic abuse has only recently been recognised in some legal jurisdictions
and there is a low level of public awareness of it. Combined with some clear evidence of the
damaging effects of economic abuse these factors present a strong argument for more to be
done to identify and address economic abuse in the Australian context.
The ong>Spotlightong> on Economic Abuse Project aims to identify systemic issues of economic
abuse to facilitate and guide initiatives within government, corporations and community
service sectors for the prevention, early intervention and mitigation of economic abuse. This
paper takes the first step in this journey, presenting a review of national and international
research literature relating to economic abuse in Australia and identifying key areas of policy
and sectors for intervention. It is underpinned by the shared belief of Good Shepherd Youth
& Family Service and Kildonan UnitingCare that it is only after we name economic abuse
that we can work together to confront and prevent it. By identifying and describing economic
abuse, its impacts and the way in which it is perpetuated, we can begin to take action to
build collaborative partnerships and develop innovative responses to address abuse.
This literature and policy review paper presents a complex picture of an intersecting web of
factors and relationships at systemic, political, legal, economic and cultural levels that
perpetuate economic abuse. It also draws attention to the need for engagement and
cooperation across community, corporate and government sectors to tackle economic
This paper is organised as follows:
Section 2 defines and describes economic abuse and considers what is known from
research literature about its prevalence.
Section 3 explores the context of and influences on economic abuse and it reviews
literature on what is known about the impacts of abuse. This section also looks at
community attitudes to abuse and it presents a classification for policies, practices
and regulatory frameworks affecting economic abuse.
Section 4 identifies and describes some recent developments in key areas of public
policy relating to economic abuse. These are: family and domestic violence; social
security and crisis support; housing and homelessness; child support and family
assistance; and financial capability and financial counselling; and legal assistance
and legal costs.
Section 5 identifies and describes key legal and regulatory frameworks which have
significance for understandings of and responses to economic abuse. These are:
family violence laws; family law (property); victims’ compensation; superannuation;
migration laws; anti-discrimination laws; and consumer protection regulation.
Section 6 provides an overview of employment policies, regulation and practices as
they relate to economic abuse.
Section 7 considers community services policies and practices which relate to and
impact on economic abuse.
This section is concerned with the nature of economic abuse and the ways in which it has
been understood and described. First, it identifies economic abuse as a form of domestic
and family violence and draws on the research literature to describe the types of behaviours
that can constitute economic abuse. Second, it considers other forms of violence and
exploitation which may overlap with economic abuse. Finally it explores what is known from
the research literature about the prevalence of economic abuse.
Describing economic abuse
Economic abuse—also referred to as economic violence, economic control, economic
deprivation, financial abuse and financial control—is a form of domestic and family violence,
involving behaviours that negatively affect a person financially and undermine that person’s
efforts to become economically independent (Weaver et al. 2009). While economic abuse
may be recognised and understood by those affected by domestic violence and by people
who work with them (Brookes 2006) it is has only recently become a focus for research in
Australia, with early work including reports by Branigan (2004) and by Green and Pearce
(2002, cited by Brookes 2006). Economic abuse has also only recently been included as a
form of domestic and family violence in some, but not all, Australian family violence laws
In Victoria, Domestic Violence Victoria (DV Vic), the peak body representing domestic and
family violence services, provides the following definition of family violence:
Family Violence is the repeated use of violent, threatening, coercive or
controlling behaviour by an individual against a family member(s), or someone
with whom they have, or have had an intimate relationship including carers.
Violent behaviour includes not only physical assaults but an array of power
and control tactics used along a continuum in concert with one another,
including direct or indirect threats, sexual assault, emotional and psychological
torment, economic control, property damage, social isolation and behaviour
which causes a person to live in fear.
Currently only certain behaviours and actions defined as family violence are
criminal offences, any behaviour that constitutes family violence is
Family violence can occur within any family relationship, including same sex
relationships. It affects transgender people, the elderly and people with
disabilities. While it can be perpetuated by any member of a family against
another, it is more likely to be perpetrated by men (predominately by a
woman’s current or ex-partner) against women and children.
The Victorian Indigenous Family Violence Taskforce has defined family
violence as: ‘An issue focused around a wide range of physical, emotional,
sexual, social, spiritual, cultural, psychological and economic abuses that
occur within families, intimate relationships, extended families, kinship
networks and communities. It extends to one on one fighting, abuse of
Indigenous community workers, as well as self harm, injury and suicide.’ (DV
Vic 2011, accessed 24 June 2012)
The DV Vic definition informs the understanding of domestic and family violence adopted in
this paper. In Australia generally the term family violence is more typically used to refer to
violence perpetrated by a range of family or community members while domestic violence
refers to violence perpetrated by a male partner towards a woman. Both terms acknowledge
the gendered nature of violence and they are often used interchangeably (Murray & Powell
2011). Throughout this paper they are used together to maintain a focus on the intimate
partner relationships in which most family violence occurs and to include consideration of the
other family and community contexts in which economic abuse occurs, including for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women (Bryant & Willis 2008), older adults (Bagshaw,
Wendt & Zannettino 2009; McFerran 2009) and people with disabilities (Hague et al. 2008).
For example in relation to people with disabilities, economic abuse may be perpetrated by
someone who is not a relative or intimate partner but is in a family-like relationship living with
the person with a disability or is providing care and personal support to that person in a
home environment (Office of the Public Advocate 2010).
Acknowledging that the vast majority of domestic and family violence is perpetrated by men
against women, the term woman is used in making non-specific references to people
affected by violence. This is not intended to suggest that all men are perpetrators of violence
nor that men are never victims of abuse. Violence may occur in same-sex relationships and
may be perpetrated by women; however, typically domestic violence is perpetrated by men
against their current or former female partner.
There is no single broadly adopted definition of economic abuse. Definitions vary somewhat
according to their purpose (for example, for legal, statistical or research purposes).
Economic abuse as a form of domestic and family violence is most often defined in terms of
behaviours of the person perpetrating the violence. In definitions of family and domestic
violence in the family violence laws in Australia that include economic abuse, it has been
formulated as including the following:
unreasonable controlling behaviour without consent that denies a person financial
withholding financial support reasonably necessary for the maintenance of a partner;
coercing a partner to relinquish control over assets
unreasonably preventing a person from taking part in decisions over household
expenditure or the disposition of joint property
coercing a person to claim social security payments
preventing a person from seeking or keeping employment.
(ALRC/NSWLRC 2010, pp. 196-197). 2
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) defines economic abuse as:
actual or threatened (abuse), including deprivation of basic necessities;
seizure of income or assets; withholding or controlling against a person’s will
their access to money, food, clothes and personal items such as car keys or
bankbook; unreasonable denial of the means necessary for participation in
social life; and coercion. (ABS 2009, p. 9)
The ABS identifies the relationships in which economic abuse might occur as marriage;
defacto relationships; intimate relationships, whether of a sexual nature or not; parent-child
2 These formulations are drawn from the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) s 6; Intervention
Orders (Prevention of Abuse) Act 2009 (SA) s 8(5); Family Violence Act 2004 (Tas) ss 7, 8; and the
Domestic and Family Violence Act 2007 (NT) s 5. The full definition of economic abuse in the
Victorian legislation is given in full in Appendix B of this report.
elationships; sibling relationships; domestic relationships; relatives through blood, marriage,
or cultural, ethnic or religious beliefs (including kinship relationships); and relationships of
dependency, or involving personal or financial commitment (ABS 2009, p. 9).
Within the practice and research literature concerned with domestic and family violence,
definitions of economic abuse are somewhat broader. For example Tolman (2011 p. 1)
identifies economic abuse “in its broadest conceptualisations, (as) the set of behaviors
designed to harm women’s economic wellbeing”. Similarly Adams and colleagues (Adams et
al. 2008, p. 564) describe economic abuse as involving behaviours that ‘control a woman’s
ability to acquire, use, and maintain economic resources, thus threatening her economic
security and potential for self-sufficiency’.
Recent research, reports from practitioners and reviews of family and domestic violence
research have identified types of behaviours which can constitute economic abuse. For
example, from her research in the United Kingdom, Sharp (2008, pp. 1-2) identified these
four types of abuse:
interfering with education and employment
controlling access to economic resources
refusing to contribute
generating economic cost.
Based on their review of research in the United States, Adams et al. (2008) identified three
types of economic abuse:
preventing women from acquiring resources
preventing women from using resources
exploiting women’s resources.
Combining these, the following four types of behaviours can be identified:
Preventing acquisition of economic resources:
o through interfering with education, training and employment
o through preventing acquisition of other economic resources.
Preventing use of resources/controlling access to economic resources.
Refusing to contribute.
Exploiting women’s resources and/or generating economic costs.
Examples of these types of behaviours are identified in recent research studies from
Australia (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011; Branigan 2004; Branigan 2007; Fraser, Hunter &
Borrell 2011; McFerran 2011), the UK (Refuge 2005; Sharp 2008), the USA (Adams et al.
2008; Anderson et al. 2003; Moe & Bell 2004; Postmus et al. 2012; Tolman & Wang 2005),
and Canada (Power 2006).
Case Study: Maria
Maria’s husband used manipulative behaviour to try to ensure Maria remained reliant on him
for financial security. Initially he discouraged her from joining the workforce, saying she
should concentrate on minding their three children. After the children started school Maria
wanted to study nursing. Outwardly her husband gave his approval but he made it difficult, if
not impossible, for Maria to study effectively.
Maria’s husband promised to look after the kids but double-booked so Maria had to miss
classes or study. He hid her study documents, professing ignorance if she asked him about
them. He accused her of being selfish if she made study a priority over his or the children’s
needs. He took steps to make her exhausted when she sat exams or had other important
study days, coming home late and waking her, or provoking arguments or stressful
encounters close to bedtime.
Maria passed her course and began working. Her husband appeared to support her but as
time went by increasingly he sabotaged her efforts to be a reliable, consistent employee. He
promised her use of the car then took it himself. He offered to drive her to the station then
pretended to forget. He insisted she stay home if the children were sick and he never took
time off to care for them. He sometimes turned up at her workplace unexpectedly, even
though she asked him not to.
After Maria left her husband his visits to work continued and were openly nasty. He often
called and shouted at her over the phone and he threatened her workmates.
Case study from Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service family violence program.
The list below has been drawn from the findings of this body of research, from reviews of
literature (Fawole 2008; Gilfus 2002; Landvogt 2011; National Coalition against Domestic
Violence [NCADV] n.d.; Renzetti 2009; Swanberg, Macke & Logan 2005; Tolman 2011) and
from practitioner accounts of abuse (Fraser, Hunter & Borrell 2011; Green & Pearce 2002;
Hand, Chung & Peters 2009).
A.1 Preventing acquisition of economic resources through interfering with
education, training and employment
sabotaging transport (for example, hiding keys or taking car, refusing to give a ride to
failing to provide promised childcare
hiding work clothes
destroying documents (for example, books for study, essays)
physically restraining women
cutting a woman’s hair
harassing with phone calls to work during the day
threatening or demanding woman quits job/study
following woman to and from work.
A.2 Preventing acquisition of economic resources through other interference
interfering with receipt of other income (for example, child support, income support)
refusing to include a woman’s name on property titles or car ownership papers
not allowing car ownership
preventing a woman having access to her own bank account/joint bank account
preventing access to financial information
preventing involvement in important financial decisions.
B. Preventing use of resources/controlling access to economic resources
controlling a woman’s ability to make use of her own or shared resources
controlling how money is spent and limiting access (for example, denying access
to money for necessities such as food or allocating a specific amount of money
and no more to be spent on household necessities)
limiting access to and monitoring use of transportation
controlling a woman’s credit card, bank account access
monitoring all spending and making a woman account for all money spent.
C. Refusing to contribute
refusing to contribute to household expenses (including making woman solely
responsible for household debts such as utility bills)
refusing to earn income or claim incomes support or other benefits;
D. Exploiting a woman’s resources and generating economic costs
depleting a woman’s resources including stealing money and causing debts to be
generated in her name
stealing, destroying or damaging household goods, a woman’s belongings,
pawning a woman’s property or shared property
running up debts in a woman’s name (for example, fines associated with cars,
business losses), possibly leading to bankruptcy
obtaining credit in a woman’s name or in both names, using up the credit and
running up debts
spending money required for household needs (for example, rent, food, bills).
forcing a woman to commit social security or tax fraud.
The Power and Control Wheel shown below was developed on the basis of women’s
experiences of domestic violence to document the most common forms of abusive
behaviours or tactics used by men against women. It includes economic abuse as one
aspect of a pattern of actions used to intentionally control or dominate a partner. This wheel
is widely used in Australia and elsewhere as a tool for assisting workers and women who
have experienced violence to identify and understand controlling and abusive
behaviours(Christy-McMullin 2011; Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria 2012,
viewed 19 August 2012, http://www.dvrcv.org.au/ellen-pence/>; Sharp 2008).
Some ‘typical scenarios’ of economic abuse identified by Kildonan UnitingCare financial
Men who either get their partner to sign up as the car owner or regularly take their
partner’s car and run up thousands of dollars in fines; if he is young, the man
typically disappears, as does the car.
Men who hold assets in their names and ensure all liabilities are in their partner’s
name – usually credit cards, household bills and personal loans.
Men who use the assets of their partner as security to fund fairly risky projects or
speculation, often getting access to their partner’s superannuation through the
hardship provisions or persuading them to cash in their long service leave, family
borrowings etc. In one case, a nurse in her mid 50s had a nervous breakdown. The
counsellor said this woman felt she had been used by her partner as a ‘cash cow’.
Men who control their partners by allowing for no separate partner income and
providing inadequate funds for running a household, maintaining a car, feeding the
family or for personal spending.
Fraser, Hunter & Borrell 2011, p. 10
Diagram 1: Power and Control Wheel
Domestic Abuse Intervention Project 1984
(accessed 21 July 2012, )
As part of repeated or ongoing controlling behaviour economic abuse is likely to occur in
conjunction with and as part of other forms of domestic and family violence as indicated in
the following examples, which draw on the ABS (2009) definitions of forms of family
interfering with education or employment may involve physical abuse such as
restraining the woman or preventing sleep
economic exploitation of a woman may involve sexual abuse where a woman is
forced or coerced to engage in sexual activities for money
psychological or emotional abuse whereby manipulative behaviour is used to make a
woman feel she has or is a problem and cannot succeed at study or other
interference with participation in employment and controlling access to economic
resources may involve social abuse whereby a woman is forcibly isolated from family
or friends and rendered unreasonably dependent on a partner
interference with work participation may involve harassment or stalking such as
constant phone calls or repeated visits to a workplace.
Sharp (2008a) has developed an ‘economic abuse wheel’ to show how the use of economic
abuse reinforces and overlaps with other types of control as a form of domestic violence
Diagram 2: Economic Abuse Wheel
Economic abuse and elder abuse
Economic abuse of older people has also been identified as a common form of ‘elder abuse’,
which is a concept that is different from, but has a significant overlap with, domestic and
family violence. Elder abuse may be a form of domestic or family violence or it may occur
outside intimate personal and family relationships. The term refers to the harm or neglect of
an older person by a person with whom the older person has a relationship of a kind that
implies trust and/or dependence (ABS 2006; Elder Abuse Prevention Unit, viewed 7 July
2012 at ). Thus, elder abuse perpetrated by a
partner, family member or by an unpaid carer in an informal relationship is a form of
domestic or family violence while the concept also includes abuse in a much wider range of
relationships, including with paid carers and in paid care settings (Office of the Public
Advocate 2010, Queensland Law Society 2010). Outside Australia the term has also been
used to refer to single incidents such as deception or controlling behaviour perpetrated by
strangers; for example salespeople (Straka & Montminy 2006). However, in Australia abuse
or fraud perpetrated by strangers is not usually included in definitions of elder abuse.
In Australia, the majority of abusers of older people (80-90 per cent) have been found to be
close family members (Kurrle 2004, p.809). Several studies have found economic abuse to
be the most common form of reported or suspected elder abuse in family relationships, with
the older person’s adult son or daughter most likely to be the abuser (Bagshaw, Wendt and
Zannettino 2007). Seniors Rights Victoria (2012, p. 5) report that, among older people
approaching their service for information and support relating to abuse, financial abuse is the
most common form and it “most commonly manifests as financial loss arising from the
disposal of an older person’s assets in exchange for their future care and accommodation,
often under pressure from another party”.
The complex social and legal contexts of elder abuse require additional considerations that
are beyond the scope of this paper. These include that abuse often occurs where an elderly
person is vulnerable due to guardianship or power of attorney arrangements, which may be
‘vehicles for financial elder abuse’ (Productivity Commission 2011, p. 454).
Economic abuse, labour exploitation, trafficking and forced labour
The boundaries between economic abuse and other forms of violence and exploitation can
be blurred. While there is very limited evidence that other forms of abuse and exploitation
are common in Australia they may be experienced by some women and there are groups
who are vulnerable to such abuse and exploitation. The most common form may be labour
exploitation, involving employment with pay and conditions that are beneath minimum
regulated standards (Nelms, Nicholson & Wheatley 2011). Women and younger men such
as students and others on temporary visas may be particularly vulnerable to labour
exploitation (Burn et al. 2012). A situation of forced labour exists where a person cannot
leave the work because of threats or force (Burn et al. 2012) and some situations of forced
labour may constitute slavery (Cullen & McSherry 2009). A separate problem is where
women are trafficked to Australia for the purpose of placing them in exploitative or abusive
situations such as into forced prostitution.
While the overlaps between economic abuse and these other forms of abuse and
exploitation are recognised, this paper does not include an examination of this broader
literature. Where labour exploitation occurs within family and intimate partner relationships,
for example where an abusive partner coerces a woman to work in a family enterprise
without any benefit to the woman, this is within the definition of economic abuse used in this
paper. Elsewhere this type of situation could be termed ‘servile marriage’. Servile marriage is
also outside the scope of this paper, while it is recognised that forced marriage can be a
form of domestic and family violence
How common is economic abuse?
Historically economic abuse has not been included as a form of domestic and family
violence in law nor in definitions used in surveys of violence. Therefore, there is limited
information from Australian sources about its prevalence in the population. Key national data
sources on domestic and family violence are the Personal Safety Survey conducted by the
ABS (ABS 2006) and the Australian component of the International Violence Against Women
Survey (IVAWS) (Mouzos & Makkai 2004), neither of which included economic abuse in their
definitions of domestic and family violence. The Personal Safety Survey found that two per
cent of women had been subject to violence by a current partner and 15 per cent had
experienced violence by a previous partner. By comparison, just under one per cent of men
had experienced violence from a current partner and almost five per cent had experienced
violence from a previous partner (ABS 2006, p. 11). The IVAWS survey found that 34 per
cent of women who had a current or former intimate partner had been subject to domestic
violence at least once, with 36 per cent experiencing violence from a former partner and 10
per cent from a current partner (Mouzos & Makkai 2004, p. 3).
While there is limited Australian research on its prevalence, there are research findings that
suggest economic abuse may be a very common form of violence affecting women who
seek assistance because of domestic and family violence. A recent Australian study found
80 per cent of 134 women who reported they had experienced domestic violence had been
subject to financial abuse (Evans 2007). In this study financial abuse referred to “a situation
where one partner in a relationship maintains control over the finances and prevents the
other from having ready access to available funds” (Evans 2007, p. 25). Thus, the 80 per
cent of women would not include any who experienced interference with their participation in
education, training or employment but who did not also experience control over their
finances. In a recent Australian online survey of workers nearly half of respondents who had
experienced domestic violence reported that the violence affected their capacity to get to
work; 31 per cent of this group reported that car keys or transport money were hidden or
stolen, 23 per cent reported that personal documents were hidden or stolen and 23 per cent
reported that their partner refused or failed to show up to care for children (McFerran 2011,
Much of the other relevant research available is from the United States and this also mostly
concerns women seeking assistance due to domestic violence. One recent United States
study found that over 90 per cent of 120 women participating in a domestic violence support
group had experienced some form of economic abuse (Postmus et al. 2012). Examples
included: experiences of a partner doing things to keep the woman from going to her job (68
per cent); a partner spending money that was needed for rent or bills (69 per cent); a partner
running up debt under the woman’s name by using her credit cards or running up phone bills
(59 per cent); and a partner making a woman ask for money (74 per cent) (Postmus et al.
2012). In another US study which trialled a ‘Scale of Economic Abuse’ 99 per cent of 120
women who were seeking support from domestic violence services were found to have been
subject to economic abuse and, of those who were on low incomes, 76 per cent reported
that the material hardship they faced was very much or completely the responsibility of their
abusive partner (Adams et al. 2008, p. 581). Reviewing US studies from the late 1980s to
mid 2000s Adams et al. (2008) report findings of between 29 and 62 per cent of women
experiencing domestic violence reporting that their partners’ interfered with their ability to
further their education. Other research found 38 per cent of 485 women seeking support
from domestic violence services reported that their partners had stolen money from them
(Anderson et al. 2003). The prevalence of economic abuse varies considerably between
studies, which concern different groups, use different methods and adopt different definitions
of economic abuse. However, overall they suggest that economic abuse is often present
where women experience other forms of violence.
Findings from research studies in the UK concerning women who have sought assistance
due to domestic violence show similarly high levels of economic abuse experienced
concurrently with other forms of domestic violence. Reviewing UK research, Sharp (2008)
reports that studies have found between 43 and 98 per cent of women have experienced
economic abuse as part of domestic violence. Some UK research sheds light on the
incidence of economic abuse. 3 In a study by Robinson (2003, p. 8) 64 per cent of women
who sought assistance for domestic violence experienced financial abuse and half of these
women reported that they experienced financial abuse ‘almost constantly’, a much higher
percentage than for other forms of abuse.
The nationally representative British Crime Survey undertaken in the UK in 2001 did include
economic abuse as a form of domestic violence (Walby & Allen 2004). Walby and Allen
(2004) reported that four per cent of women and two per cent of men were subject to
domestic violence during the previous year and that these figures increased to six and five
per cent respectively when emotional and financial abuses were included. They estimated
that one in five women and one in ten men had experienced at least one incident of ‘nonsexual
domestic threat or force’ since they were 16 and that if financial and emotional abuse
were included, then 26 per cent of women and 17 per cent of men had experienced
domestic violence since the age of 16 (Walby & Allen 2004, p. 12). This study also found
that nearly half (41%) of women who had been subject to domestic violence had also been
subject to emotional or financial abuse (Walby & Allen 2004, pp. 18-19).
The findings of these Australian and overseas research studies identifying economic abuse
as occurring along with other forms of domestic and family violence are consistent with
reports from Australian domestic violence services (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010, p 214). They are
also consistent with understandings of domestic and family violence as a pattern of coercive
control and of economic abuse as one means for a perpetrator of violence in an intimate
partner relationship to establish and sustain an unequal power balance. In the next section
economic abuse is located within the broader context of it as an element of domestic and
3 While prevalence refers to the proportion of a population that has experienced a particular type of
violence (once or more times), incidence refers to the total number of occasions on which the violence
Influences, Impacts and Points of Intervention
It is necessary to locate economic abuse within the broader context of domestic and family
violence and the context of broader social and economic arrangements to identify influencing
factors and impacts and to start drawing out the multiplicity of connections between public
policies and practices and economic abuse. In this section an ecological model is applied to
economic abuse to illustrate the complexity of the relationships between influencing factors
and consequences including the underlying conditions which may increase or may decrease
risks of abuse. Following this, the discussion focuses on what is known about vulnerability to
economic abuse. It then turns to an examination of the direct consequences of economic
abuse and of the financial or economic consequences of domestic and family violence.
Applying an ecological model to economic abuse
In Figure One an ‘ecological model’ (Bronfenbrenner 1979) is applied to economic abuse.
This model provides a visual representation of the multiple levels of influences on economic
abuse and it gives some emphasis to gender inequality including the unequal economic
position of women. Thus the model includes individual, situational, community and societal
factors that influence abuse and economic wellbeing. This type of model has been used in a
wide range of contexts to explore influences on violence (World Health Organization 2002, p.
12) including, in Victoria, VicHealth’s (2007) framework for preventing violence against
Influences at all levels may be positive or negative; they may either reduce or increase the
likelihood of economic abuse occurring or they may either lessen or exacerbate the negative
consequences of economic abuse. The solid arrows in Figure One show the direction of
causal influences. The complicated relationships between causal factors and responses are
indicated by the arrows identifying that causal influences may operate in both directions.
This model can also be used to guide an exploration of the relations of public policies and
practices—including government policy and services, regulatory frameworks, and community
sector policies and practices—to economic abuse that captures the sphere of influence (for
example, societal, community, relationship/individual) and later sections of this report
address these issues.
Figure 1: An ecological model of economic abuse
Other impacts of
Decision to stay
or leave abusive
structures (such as
domestic & family
Economic abuse and economic independence
The earlier discussion of the nature of economic abuse highlighted the ways in which
economic abuse involves power dynamics and is about controlling behaviours which are
directed to maintaining power and preventing women’s independence in an abusive
relationship. Unequal power—including unequal economic power—in a relationship can
provide the conditions that allow or enable domestic violence to occur by making it difficult
for women to leave relationships in which they experience violence (Lyon 2000) and lack of
financial independence has been found to be a major factor influencing a woman’s decision
to remain in an abusive relationship (Anderson & Saunders 2003). Thus, reducing economic
dependence and improving women’s financial security are seen as essential for leaving a
violent partner (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011; National Council to Reduce Violence Against
Women and their Children 2009). Here the relationship between the impacts of economic
abuse and responses to economic abuse can be seen as critical to and difficult to separate
from the impacts and responses to domestic and family violence more generally.
Particular vulnerabilities to economic abuse
With survey and research studies pointing to economic abuse occurring in conjunction with
other forms of domestic violence it is likely that any patterns of vulnerability to economic
abuse are similar to patterns of vulnerability identified for domestic violence more generally.
While domestic violence is found across all socioeconomic groups some groups may face
particular risks and these risks may arise from the complex interactions of a range of factors.
As survey research has not traditionally measured economic abuse, the information that is
available about vulnerability to economic abuse must largely be drawn from studies that can
tell us much about the particular ways in which different groups may be vulnerable to
economic abuse but less about the likelihood of economic abuse being more or less
common as a form of domestic and family violence for some groups of women than for
Australian surveys of women’s experiences of domestic violence, while not including
measures of economic abuse, identify young women aged between 18 and 24 years as
particularly at risk of experiencing domestic violence (Mouzos & Makkai 2004). Women are
also identified as being at higher risk of experiencing violence in the periods prior to and
following separation from a partner and during pregnancy (Mouzos & Makkai 2004;
There has been some recent attention in Australia and elsewhere to the domestic and family
violence experienced by older people and reviews of the literature suggest there are some
factors common in older age groups that have implications for effective responses for older
women experiencing domestic and family violence (Bagshaw, Wendt & Zannettino 2009;
McFerran 2009; Straka & Montminy 2006). These factors include reluctance to report
violence, financial problems and financial dependence (including barriers to employment),
and health and care issues, all of which may make it difficult for women to leave abusive
relationships. In relation to care, Straka and Montminy (2006) note that both women
receiving and providing care may experience this as a barrier to leaving an abusive
relationship. Bagshaw, Wendt and Zannettino (2009) note that studies have found that
abuse of older people within the family is still largely the abuse of older women by older and
younger men. They also suggest that for older women a particular problem may be a lack of
recognition of forms of abuse that are not physical or sexual as domestic violence.
Bagshaw, Wendt and Zannettino (2009) also identify ‘effects’ of rurality, race and culture as
interacting to influence older people’s vulnerability to economic abuse. Increased risks
associated with these factors include the existence of barriers to seeking help which include
cultural norms, low English language skills and/or accessibility of appropriate services and
information. Other women who may face such barriers include Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander women, women with a disability, women with mental health issues or illness and
women who are lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex people (State of Victoria 2010).
The nature of women’s dependence on a partner or other family member may increase the
vulnerability of some groups of women who experience domestic violence to experiencing
economic abuse as part of this violence (Sanders & Schnabel 2007). For example women
who are asylum seekers, refugees or recent migrants applying for residency or work visas,
women in small family agricultural businesses, women with a disability, and women in some
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities may have particular vulnerabilities to
Women with a disability or illness who have physical care needs or cognitive impairments
may have particular vulnerabilities to domestic violence (Healey et al. 2008). A recent
Victorian study of violence against people with cognitive impairments identified financial
abuse and neglect by a range of different family members including intimate partners and
also parents and children and paid staff who were carers of the person they abused (Office
of the Public Advocate 2010). A British study of women with disabilities by Hague et al.
(2008) identified examples of economic abuse by intimate partners that included women
being denied money for medicines and for essential personal needs related to impairment
and of abusive partners taking over total control of the finances of women who were highly
dependent. Similarly Smith and Hilton (2008) report women with disabilities being prevented
from going to work by partners and other family members who for example, refused to assist
with daily routines such as grooming, damaged communication devices or removed batteries
from electric wheelchairs.
Economic abuse in the form of ‘humbugging’ has been identified as a particular problem for
people in some indigenous communities (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010, p. 214; Bryant & Willis
2008). Humbugging is the practice of demanding money or other material resources from
relatives, it is often enforced by threatening behaviour (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010, p. 214) or
through ‘trickery and deceit’ and it is most commonly perpetrated by young men (NCRVAWV
2009, p. 189). It can leave people with little or no money for food and other essentials and,
while humbugging may occur throughout communities, the most common victims are
women. Bryant and Willis (2008, p. 6) note that while the extent of economic abuse in
indigenous communities has not been quantified “its physical, emotional and mental effects
are potentially devastating”. While there may be particular difficulties identifying and
addressing humbugging in the context of kinship and family obligations and practices which
promote sharing, no relevant research literature was found on this.
Other groups may be at increased risk of violence due to facing cultural or language barriers
to seeking help (Bonar & Roberts 2006 cited by Dimopolous 2011). Low English language
skills can be a barrier to accessing information and services while cultural norms in some
communities may create barriers for some women. In a discussion of elder abuse Wainer et
al. (2010, p. 10) make the point that “the management of money and intergenerational asset
transfer within families is culturally bound and draws on deeply held values about
appropriate behaviour and responsibilities between generations”. This has a wider
applicability to domestic and family violence and may be a factor increasing risk in some age
groups and for some groups from particular ethnic and cultural backgrounds. However, it
needs to be remembered that culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups are not
homogeneous and cannot be treated as such, a point which has been stressed by
researchers (Dimopoulos 2011; Morgan & Chadwick 2009).
A group of migrant women who are particularly vulnerable to being trapped in situations of
violence and abuse are women who are in relationships with citizens or permanent residents
of Australia but who themselves are awaiting permanent residency (Pham 2011). The
Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse’s (ADFVC) recent qualitative study
included several women whose partners had attempted to sabotage their migration
applications or make it difficult for them to apply for work visas or residency (Braaf & Barrett
Meyering 2011). Vulnerability for women in these circumstances may also be high because
of social isolation and lack of alternative means of financial support, including inability to take
up paid work due to language and skill barriers or visa restrictions and lack of eligibility for
income support payments.
Women living in rural and remote areas, including women in indigenous communities, may
be less likely to seek help for domestic violence. Drawing together the findings from a
number of Australian studies, Mitchell (2011) identifies the ideology of self-reliance, informal
sanctions and social control as factors in this along with traditional gender roles as risk
factors. Women in rural and remote areas may also find it harder to seek help or leave a
violent relationship. Morgan and Chadwick (2009) also review relevant Australian literature
and they identify the barriers as isolation and a lack of services (including lack of access to
services that women perceive as confidential and as providing anonymity).
Exploring the impacts of economic abuse
Referring to the Australian context, Brookes has observed:
there has been little research to understand how (economic abuse) is used,
how it is experienced by women, its role in controlling and manipulating
women, in creating dependence and isolation, in obstructing women’s escape;
and its long-term impact on women even after leaving the relationship.
(Brookes 2006, p. 2)
A scan of the literature suggests this continues to be the case and also that there is very
limited research which has specifically examined the impacts of economic abuse on women,
children, families and on the community. However, much is known about the impacts of the
domestic and family violence of which economic abuse is one element. In addition it is not
always possible or sensible to try to disentangle the impacts of one form of violence from the
impacts of other forms of violence. As illustrated earlier, economic abuse and other forms of
violence occur together and overlap as part of patterns of controlling behaviour; this is also
likely to be the case for the impacts of violence as indicated in the model presented in Figure
One. Domestic and family violence can have significant negative consequences for
economic wellbeing whether or not an abusive partner’s behaviour includes economic
abuse. At the same time, economic abuse leading to financial hardship potentially has a
whole range of negative consequences for health, housing, employment, interpersonal
relationships and parenting while these factors can also impact on children’s wellbeing.
Some of the direct and most apparent consequences for victims of economic abuse are the
financial or economic consequences. These are consequences for people while they are in
violent relationships, on leaving violent relationships, when attempting to gain financial
stability following exit from violent relationships and on their prospects for economic security
in the long term.
As Outlaw (2009, p. 264) puts it “(e)conomic abuse involves imposed economic dependence
of the abused by the abuser, if not outright stealing by the abusive spouse”. Economic
dependence on an abusive partner can be a critical obstacle to leaving the relationship
(Adams et al. 2008). In addition to victims being unable to access funds needed to leave,
domestic violence can cause social isolation which reduces options for leaving
(ALRC/NSWLRC 2010). However, while concerns about financial insecurity—including
concerns for impacts on children—are one reason women stay in abusive relationships,
financial issues have also been identified as providing the impetus for women to leave
abusive relationships (Braaf &Barrett Meyering 2010).
Economic abuse threatens short and long-term economic wellbeing. Women on low incomes
in a relationship with an abusive partner report a lack of resources needed for day-to-day
survival such as money, housing, childcare and transportation (Adams et al. 2008; Power
2006; Short et al. 2000). Abuse can impact on women’s capacity to work leading to
interrupted employment and to unemployment (Lindhorst et al. 2007; Lloyd 1997; Swanberg,
Macke and Logan 2007).
In Australia, domestic and family violence is often associated with poverty and
homelessness (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare [AIHW] 2007; Branigan 2004) and,
while financial hardship prevents some women leaving abusive relationships, it also
sometimes prompts women to return. Lack of money can limit women’s capacity to access
services needed to support recovery and prevent women taking up safety measures such as
installing locks and alarms, maintaining a phone and a car or relocating (Braaf & Barrett
A recent qualitative study by the ADFVC (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011) comprised
research interviews with 57 women who had experienced domestic violence and with
workers. This study identified economic consequences of domestic and family violence in
seven areas, many of which can be direct consequences of economic abuse. Impacts
identified in the ADFVC study and their review of literature and in other research studies
(cited below) include the following:
Impacts on employment whereby women’s ability to work is affected or women are
not working while in an abusive relationship as a consequence of economic abuse or
other violence or women give up employment when leaving their partner and have
difficulty re-entering the paid workforce (see also Costello, Chung & Carson 2005;
McFerran 2011; Murray & Powell 2008; Swanberg, Logan & Macke 2005). Women
may also find it difficult to maintain employment after leaving a violent relationship as
they try to manage other consequences of the violence including legal issues and
housing (see also Evans 2007; Franzway, Zafferey & Chung 2007; Lloyd 1997; Lyon
2000; Murray & Powell 2008)
Impacts relating to debts, bills and banking. Women exit from relationships carrying
debts including mortgages, credit card bills and business debts including debts
incurred by ex-partners in joint names and in women’s names. Debts can result in
bad credit ratings, insolvency and bankruptcy (see also Branigan 2004, 2007; Evans
2007). Women’s debts following domestic violence may include mortgages, credit
cards, payday loans, utility bills, hire purchase contracts, mobile phone plans, parking
fines and Centrelink overpayments (Braaf and Barrett Meyering 2011).
Impacts relating to accommodation and household goods. Women may lose their
possessions, have no assets in their name and may face immediate homelessness
as well as difficulty finding safe, affordable and appropriate accommodation.
Domestic violence is the most common reason for women seeking help from
homelessness services in Australia (Tually et al. 2008) and women may also
experience insecure, unsafe or unsuitable housing on exiting violent relationships.
Lack of affordable housing can result in women relocating to areas where they feel
isolated from friends, family and other supports and where children have to change
schools or travel long distances to school. Women who have to relocate face
associated costs of moving, loss of possessions, storage fees and rental bonds.
Recent national data on people seeking crisis accommodation assistance shows that
40 per cent of single women aged 25 years and over without children seeking
assistance were doing so because of domestic or family violence and for women with
children this was the case for 48 per cent of incidents of seeking assistance (AIHW
2011, p. 15).
Impacts relating to social security and other material supports. Women experiencing
domestic violence may require immediate financial and material assistance as well
as ongoing income support. On the basis of their interviews Braaf and Barrett
Meyering (2010, p. 3) conclude that “regardless of prior economic circumstances,
many women experience financial risk or poverty as a result of domestic violence”.
There is considerable research showing that women who are sole parents are among
the most financially disadvantaged people in Australia, with high levels of reliance on
government income support payments among this group (Australian Council of
Social Service [ACOSS] 2010). Further, analysis of data from the 1996 Women’s
Safety Survey found that a woman experiencing physical violence in the last three
years had a 35 per cent increased chance of receiving some form of government
income support payments (Access Economics 2004, p. 59).
Impacts relating to child support. Adequacy of child support payments is a concern
for some women. Avoidance of child support payments by abusive partners
continues economic abuse while also contributing to poor financial outcomes (Corrie
2011). Women may also choose not to pursue child support or receive less than child
support than they should to avoid further violence (Patrick, Cook & McKenzie 2008;
Patrick, Cook & Taket 2007).
Impacts relating to legal matters. Legal costs may relate to protection orders, family
law matters involving children and property settlements, wills, victim compensation,
bankruptcy and legal action relating to jointly owned business. Costs include legal
fees, lost work days, child care and costs of court-appointed specialists (see also
Lyons 2000). For the women in Braaf and Barrett Meyering’s (2011) study, legal
issues were “pivotal” to women’s financial outcomes with positive legal actions also
bringing intangible benefits relating to the acknowledgement of women’s experiences
and making ex-partners accountable for behaviour. On the downside, legal
processes could cause stress and hardship. Another extremely serious impact
relating to legal matters is the possibility of women’s criminalisation through
economic abuse. For example, economic abuse may involve coercion by a partner to
defraud Centrelink or a woman destitute as a result of economic abuse may commit
a criminal offence to survive (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010; Gilfus 2002).
Impacts relating to migration matters. Women who are migrants to Australia on
spousal visas may have no or extremely limited access to income support payments
or ability to enter paid work if they leave an abusive partner (Pham 2011).
Impacts relating to health In addition to any health impacts resulting from the
experience of violence, economic abuse may affect physical and psychological
health through poverty and low income and the stress associated with this.
These impacts are likely to interact with a whole range of other impacts where economic
abuse occurs as one of several forms of violence. Economic impacts on women are also
likely to be impacts on their children and women who seek assistance for family violence are
often mothers with children. For example, in Victoria in 2010-2011, more than half of the
women seeking assistance for family violence through a specialist family violence court had
children in their care (State of Victoria 2012b, p. 19).
There is a growing body of research concerning the ways in which family violence affects
children and recent reviews of the literature point to significant negative behavioural and
emotional impacts of intimate partner domestic violence on children (ADFVC 2011; Holt
Buckley & Whelan 2008). While some impacts of economic abuse are noted above there is
less information about how this form of abuse affects children. However, it is known that
domestic violence is a factor in youth homelessness—as shown in national homelessness
data collections (AIHW 2011)—and the National Youth Commission (2011) cites a
longitudinal study of homeless young people aged 12 to 20 years which found one third had
left home because of family violence.
As Braaf and Barrett Meyering (2011) point out, another consequence of economic abuse is
that it can be a means by which men continue to control their partners’ lives after separation.
Some debts may continue to accrue after separation and other debts may continue to arise
in the immediate period following separation such as mortgage repayments on joint
properties. As well as leaving abusive relationships with a poor credit rating and outstanding
debts, economic abuse may result in women being inexperienced and lacking confidence in
dealing with financial matters (Evans 2007; VonDeLinde & Correia 2005). Adams (2011, p.
3) suggests the impacts of economic abuse are in three dimensions of women’s financial
Financial stability, which requires having “not only income to cover daily living
expenses, but also assets available to leverage in times of hardship, meet financial
goals, and build long-term security” (including finding and maintaining affordable
Economic self-sufficiency, which Adams sees as being dependent on employment
and which is defined as having the income necessary to meet basic needs (for
example, food, housing, child care, health care, transportation, taxes).
Subjective financial wellbeing whereby women believe they are able to provide for
their families away from their ex-partner, with this affecting the decision not to return
to an abusive relationship.
Relevant to all three of these dimensions, Sanders and Shnebel (2007, p. 49) note that
domestic violence in whatever form:
consumes a woman’s time and energy and damages self-confidence and ability to
focus on long and short-term goals, all of which are essential for successful transition
from economic dependency to building economic resources of her own.
In a circular relationship the ongoing experience of low income or poverty may prevent
women accessing the support they need and can result women feeling that the financial
implications of the relationship are operating as a continuation of the abuse. This example
from research conducted by Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service illustrates just one of
the ways in which economic abuse can undermine women:
For Emma, her ex-partner’s controlling behaviour meant she was not able to
purchase anything for herself, even basic items such as underwear. It takes a
lot for her to spend any money on herself now as she still fears that she is
doing something wrong. She also puts a considerable amount of pressure on
herself and becomes immobilised for fear of consequences. (Corrie 2011)
Awareness of economic abuse
Economic abuse as a form of domestic violence has been the subject of considerable policy
attention and a focus for some activists, academics and community organisations in recent
years. At the same time public awareness and understanding of the issues is poor and there
is also evidence that awareness of economic abuse in some key institutions lags behind that
which would be required to achieve significant positive action to address the problem.
Responses to a 2009 national survey of community attitudes to violence against women
commissioned by the Australian Government show that since an earlier survey in 1995
awareness of domestic violence as a serious issue has increased and perceptions of what
constitutes domestic violence have broadened (VicHealth 2010, McGregor 2009). However,
they also show that recognition of non-physical behaviours—including economic abuse—as
forms of domestic violence remains low. Some of the relevant findings from the survey
The vast majority of the community (97 per cent of respondents) agreed that physical
and sexual assault, and threats, constituted domestic violence in 2009.
Compared with 1995, people were more likely to understand that domestic violence
can take a variety of forms, including physical and sexual assault, threats of harm to
family members, and psychological, verbal and economic abuse.
Twenty-five per cent of survey respondents did not believe that “controlling a partner
by denying them money” was a form of domestic violence (compared with 33 per
cent in 1995).
Non-physical forms of violence tended to be seen as less serious with, for example,
one in five respondents categorising “yelling abuse at a partner” and “controlling a
partner by denying them money” as either “not that serious” or “not serious at all”
(VicHealth 2010, McGregor 2009).
Analyses of responses to the survey identified that a person’s strong support for gender
equity as a strong predictor for believing non-physical behaviours are always domestic
violence. Conversely, the strongest predictors for a person holding violence-supportive
attitudes were being male and having low levels of support for gender equity or equality.
These findings held when other demographic factors were statistically controlled (McGregor
2009, pp. 35-36). The survey report’s authors point out that the consequences of nonrecognition
in the community of economic, emotional and psychological abuse as forms of
domestic violence and lack of acknowledgement of their seriousness have implications for
“how readily women and others affected by non-physical forms of domestic violence will
seek help and access specialised systems of support” and for “how accurately we can
measure the prevalence of violence against women across the spectrum of unlawful
behaviours and across the diversity of women’s experiences” (VicHealth 2010, p 23). Clearly
another consequence relates to the capacity of the community to prevent women being
subjected to domestic violence when significant proportions of the population do not
consider the violence to be a problem.
Women who experience economic abuse may also be unaware that this is domestic
violence. Braaf and Barrett Meyering (2011, p. 115) report that “numerous” women in their
recent qualitative study reported that they had not realised they were experiencing domestic
violence until they left the relationship and that these women were mostly those who had
experienced non-physical forms of domestic violence “such as economic or emotional
A key issue for consideration of the sectors and issues for women experiencing economic
abuse and the public policies, legal frameworks and community services which relate to
these is the question of where women go to seek assistance for violence and abuse,
including for assistance with financial matters. It is known that many incidents of domestic
violence go unreported and that most women do not seek assistance from specialist
domestic and family violence services or other agencies (Mouzos & Makkai 2004) but less is
known about the services and assistance women do go to. A recent study by Bagshaw and
Brown (2010) which surveyed women with children found that, on leaving an abusive
relationship, women initially went to friends and family and to general practitioners; through
these people they accessed counselling and other support services and these were mostly
generalist services rather than domestic and family violence services. For financial
assistance women went to Centrelink and most went to private legal practitioners for family
court matters, although the number who did so declined after 2006 with the introduction of
the network of Family Relationship Centres, which provide an alternative to courts for
dealing with family law matters.
The connections between policies, frameworks and practices and economic abuse
The remaining sections of this paper are concerned with identifying the key public policies,
legal and regulatory frameworks, employment policies and practices and community
services policies and practices which relate to or impact on economic abuse. The purpose of
this is to identify what areas of policy and practice are crucial sites for targeting interventions
to address abuse.
In the context of identifying key sectors and issues it is helpful to categorise the policies,
practices and frameworks that have some impact on economic abuse. The approach
adopted here is based on one which is commonly used to categorise interventions to
address violence as primary, secondary or tertiary interventions. 4 While the common
categorisation is of positive interventions designed to tackle violence, the three categories
can be used to classify a wide range of policies, practices and frameworks that influence
economic abuse whether this is a positive influence that diminishes abuse or mitigates its
impacts or a negative influence that facilitates or perpetuate abuse or worsens rather than
reduces its impacts. Thus, the three categories include:
Primary factors: positive preventative measures that reduce the likelihood of abuse
occurring, and negative factors that increase the likelihood of abuse occurring.
Secondary factors: positive protective measures that respond to incidents of abuse,
including early interventions and negative factors that lead to ineffective protections
or that facilitate abuse.
Tertiary factors: positive measures that follow up to mitigate impacts or make
perpetrators accountable and negative factors that extend or worsen the abuse.
In reality these categories overlap and particular policies, frameworks and practices may
have elements of each category. In addition, policies, practices and regulations can be
classified according to the spheres of influence identified earlier in the ecological model.
These are the spheres of society, community and relationship/individual. The final three
sections of this paper identify key policies, frameworks and practices that influence
economic abuse as primary, secondary or tertiary influences in one or more of the spheres
of society, community and relationship/individual.
4 This categorisation draws on Chappell and Di Martino’s (2000) categorisation of approaches to
Public Policies and Practices
There are a myriad of public policies that relate to and impact on economic abuse in addition
to those that have been formulated and articulated specifically with the aims of tackling
domestic and family violence. These range from primary influences acting at the societal
level (such as policies which relate to social inclusion and gender equality in society) to
much more narrowly targeted secondary and tertiary interventions (such as policies which
determine the specific nature and extent of public assistance provided to individuals at times
Key areas of Australian Government policy are those that determine support and services
available through family law, legal assistance and the social security system. Homelessness
policies are also critical due to the strong association between domestic and family violence
and homelessness. In some areas, including homelessness, policy responsibility rests with
both the Australian Government and the state and territory governments. States and
territories often have responsibility for human services program and service delivery,
including the delivery of justice, policing and legal assistance and the funding and
coordination of many services provided by the non‐government sector.
Areas of public policy which have a significant impact on economic abuse and which are the
focus of discussion in this section are:
family and domestic violence
social security and crisis support
child support and family assistance
Significant public policy responses to domestic and family violence in Australia in recent
years in many of these areas demonstrate an increased awareness of the problem of
economic abuse. However this is not uniformly the case in all relevant areas of public policy
nor is it uniformly the case across Australia.
Employment is given a central and critical place in women’s economic independence in
current public policy—particularly at the federal level—and so many strategies directed to
increasing women’s economic security and achieving economic equality are concerned with
employment opportunity, reward and participation. These are discussed in Section 6 of this
Family and domestic violence policies
At the federal level recent developments in the area of domestic and family violence since
the election of the Labor Government in 2007 have generally been seen as positive with the
adoption of approaches that apply a gendered analysis to policy and because of the
government’s preparedness to work more closely with the domestic violence sector than its
predecessor (Murray & Powell 2011, p. 31). The three priority areas of the Australian
Government Office for Women (OFW)—which are all highly relevant to the issue of
economic abuse—are “reducing violence against women”, “increasing women’s economic
security” and “ensuring women’s equal place in society” (OFW 2012, , viewed 24
The establishment of a National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children in
2008 was followed by the development and endorsement by the Commonwealth, states and
territories—through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)—of the National Plan to
Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, 2010-2022 (the National Plan) (COAG
2009). This represents a significant development as Australia’s first national response to
violence against women.
The National Plan does not name economic abuse as a form of domestic violence, possibly
reflecting the fact that economic abuse is not recognised in family violence law in all
Australian states and territories (see Section 5 below). However, in defining domestic
violence the National Plan does include “control of finances” as an example of controlling
behaviours which are psychological and emotional abuse (COAG 2010, p. 2), which also
reflects the approach taken in recent change to federal family law (also discussed in Section
5 below). Interventions identified in the National Plan relating directly to economic abuse and
its consequences are:
primary interventions at the societal level promoting economic equality and building
an evidence base
secondary interventions including information strategies for newly arrived migrant
women and improving workplace supports.
The outcomes identified in the National Plan include changes in community attitudes as well
as improved services and justice. 5 There is considerable emphasis on primary prevention
through community involvement and education. However, there may be limited potential for
the National Plan to facilitate increased awareness of the variety of forms of abuse that
constitute domestic and family violence as strategies for changing attitudes do not explicitly
identify this as a goal.
There is some recognition of the significance of gender inequality and women’s economic
security in the National Plan with “the advancement of gender equality” among the 18
strategies identified (COAG 2010, p. 16). The specific interventions (mainly for the Australian
Government) for the first three years of this particular strategy are mostly directed to
achieving economic equality for women. For 2010 to 2013, these interventions are:
measures to increase women’s economic security, including paid parental leave,
superannuation reform and increased support for pensioners
measures to increase women’s leadership opportunities
the provision of information about protections for women who experience violence to
newly arrived migrants and refugees
consultation with peak employer and employee representatives to improve ways for
workplaces to better support women experiencing domestic violence
funding the ADFVC Domestic Violence Workplace Rights and Entitlements project.
One other strategy in the National Plan explicitly addresses the economic impacts of
domestic and family violence; this is a tertiary intervention which is to “support mainstream
services to identify and respond to needs”, a strategy which is presented as responding to
the needs for women and children “to receive holistic support including health, housing,
education, employment and legal assistance” (COAG 2010, pp. 23-24). Interventions in the
short-term include the provision of homelessness services to improve housing options for
women and funding of income support and family assistance payments, including the crisis
payment for women experiencing violence; other interventions mainly target the health
sector and health workers. One other highly relevant strategy in the National Plan relates to
5 Appendix A of this paper provides more detail of the outcomes identified in the National Plan.
the legal frameworks affecting domestic and family violence and this is also a tertiary
intervention which is for “justice systems to work better together and with other systems”
(COAG 2010, p. 27). The establishment of the Australian Law Reform Commission inquiries
(ALRC 2011c; ALRC/NSWLRC 2010) and consideration of their recommendations are
identified as interventions in this area; relevant aspects of these are discussed in Section 5
of this paper.
Changes to legal definitions of domestic and family violence in some states and territories
are possibly some of the most significant developments in the policy landscape relating to
economic abuse. Broad policy frameworks that take a whole-of-government approach and
that take holistic approaches to domestic and family violence are also likely to be crucial for
this level of government as it is at the state and territory level where a range of programs
and services including justice, policing and legal assistance are provided and also where
many community services provided by the not-for-profit sector are funded and coordinated.
While most Australian states and territories have implemented some level of integrated
response to family violence in recent years the broadest policy response to violence against
women is probably that taken in Victoria where the government established a Statewide
Steering Committee to Reduce Family Violence, while the most comprehensive integration
of family violence responses has occurred in the smaller jurisdictions of Tasmania and the
Australian Capital Territory (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010).
Tertiary interventions that are part of integrated responses to family violence are targeted to
responding to women during crisis when safety concerns are at the fore. Domestic and
family violence strategies do not have a strong focus on women’s post-crisis and longer-term
needs. In Victoria a project involving a number of community sector agencies working with
women who have experienced domestic and family violence has considered the ongoing
and longer-term needs of women experiencing violence beyond crisis (Desmond 2011). This
project identifies desired outcomes of a post-crisis response as a reduction of instances of
women returning to violence, a reduction of women and children’s re-entry to crisis systems
and increased economic and social participation. A key component of a proposed model is
the provision of financial assistance and funding including to assist women build financial
security (Desmond 2011).
There has been considerable activity in relation to policy development in some states and
territories over the last decade, with recent policies and plans reflecting the development of
the National Plan. However, very recently there have also been changes in governments in
several states (New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria) and in two states (Victoria and
Queensland). These changes have been accompanied by significant budget cutbacks
meaning there may be some uncertainty as to the significance of recent state plans and
frameworks as key drivers of change. Existing plans to address violence against women in
Australian states and territories vary in the extent to which they include priorities and
strategies to address economic abuse. They include:
In New South Wales, a five‐year domestic and family violence action plan ‐ Stop the
Violence, End the Silence: NSW Domestic and Family Violence Action Plan (New
South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet 2010) with actions across five
areas of prevention and early intervention: protection; safety and justice; provision of
services and support; building capacity; and data collection and research.
The Victorian Government’s 10 year A Right to Respect: Victoria's Plan to Prevent
Violence against Women 2010-2020 (State of Victoria 2010a) which identified the
key drivers of violence against women as unequal power relations between women
and men, adherence to rigid gender stereotypes and broader cultures of violence.
The framework aimed for broad engagement to change cultures through five key
settings of education and training: local government; health and community services;
sports and recreation; workplaces; and media, arts and popular culture. In early 2012
the Victorian Government commenced a process of consultation on a new three year
action plan (State of Victoria 2012a).
Also in Victoria, A Right to Safety and Justice: Strategic Framework to Guide
Continuing Family Violence Reform in Victoria 2010-2020 (State of Victoria 2010b)
set out six priority action areas, one of which focused on system capacity and
included increasing the capacity of mainstream services to respond to family
violence, developing responses to provide long and medium-term housing options,
and increasing legal support.
For our Sons and Daughters: A Queensland Government Strategy to reduce
domestic and family violence 2009‐2014 (Queensland Government 2009). The
Queensland strategy included a community engagement program to increase
awareness of the social and personal impacts of domestic and family violence
initiatives and continued support for an Elder Abuse Prevention Unit including the
development of a helpline for people experiencing elder abuse, and their friends,
carers and families and the funding of five Seniors Legal and Support Services, to
provide free assistance for seniors who are at risk or experiencing elder abuse or
In South Australia A Right to Safety: The next Phase of South Australia’s Women’s
Safety Strategy 2011-2022 (Government of South Australia 2011) includes the
promotion of employment participation to achieve gender equality among its
preventative strategies and it includes the promotion of workplace measures to
The WA Strategic Plan for Domestic and Family Violence 2009-2013 (Government of
Western Australia 2009) does not have any particular focus on economic equality or
on women’s financial stability. It does include a strategy to provide long-term housing
options with a focus on regional and remote areas and Aboriginal communities.
Safe at Home: A Criminal Justice Framework for Responding to Family Violence in
Tasmania (State of Tasmania 2003) is a whole-of-government strategy that has a
strong justice focus.
In the Australian Capital Territory, the ACT Prevention of Violence against Women
and Children Strategy (ACT Government 2011) identifies as important the continuum
of care and holistic support including health, housing, education, employment and
legal assistance and includes strategies aimed at linking service systems and
identifying and addressing gaps in ongoing support responses
The overarching policy framework in the Northern Territory is provided by the
Building on Our Strengths: A Framework for Action for Women in the Northern
Territory 2008-2012 (Northern Territory Government 2008) has five priorities, one of
which is safety. A second priority which is not specially linked to violence is for
education and employment for economic security and includes increasing access to
In all states and territories there is a much wider range of policies which impact on
responses to domestic and family violence and which may impact on economic abuse. For
example, in New South Wales relevant policies and plans identified in the Stop the Violence,
End the Silence: NSW Domestic and Family Violence Action Plan at the time of its release
included those concerned with: Aboriginal Communities’ wellbeing; child welfare;
homelessness; child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities; the prevention of violence
against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people; and the provision of services for
people with a disability. In Victoria in 2008 a ten-year plan was developed by The Indigenous
Family Violence Partnership Forum established by the Victorian Government in 2004; Strong
Culture, Strong Peoples, Strong Families - Towards a safer future for Indigenous families
and communities (Aboriginal Affairs Victoria 2008) includes a safety objective which has
some focus on strategies for the longer-term wellbeing of people experiencing family
In addition to family violence policies and programs most states have also developed
policies to address elder abuse and have provided funding for dedicated services including,
for example, the Elder Abuse Prevention Unit in Queensland and the Older Persons’ Rights
Service in Western Australia. In Victoria, Seniors Rights receives funding and operates as a
specialist community legal centre; this service was part of a broader Victorian Government
Elder Abuse Prevention Strategy implemented in 2005.
Social security and crisis support
Key government income support policies and practices relating to economic abuse and
women’s economic security are those dealing with income support, family assistance
payments, child support and income management. Other relevant income policies which are
discussed elsewhere are superannuation, and employment and wages policies.
Income support, crisis payments and other assistance
Relevant income support and other payments provided by the Australian Government
through Centrelink include the following:
Parenting Payment provides income support to the main carer of a child or children,
who is single and has at least one child aged less than eight or who has a partner
and at least one child aged less than six.
Newstart provides income support to people while they are looking for work.
The Family Tax Benefit offers financial assistance to couples or individuals with
children. Part A provides assistance for dependent children under 21 years or fulltime
students aged between 21 and 24 years. Part B provides assistance to sole
parent families and to families with one main income, where one parent stays home
or works only part-time in order to care for children.
Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance provides financial
assistance with the cost of child care to parents undertaking activities such as job
search, work, study, or training.
The Carer Allowance is a supplementary payment to parents or carers who provide
daily care for a person aged sixteen years or over with a disability, medical condition
or who is elderly.
The Disability Support Pension provides income support to adults who have a
physical, intellectual, or psychiatric condition that prevents them from working for 15
hours or more per week.
Sickness Allowance is a short-term payment for people who are employed or selfemployed,
but who temporarily cannot work or study because of a medical condition.
Special Benefit is a payment for people experiencing severe financial hardship for
reasons outside their control who cannot receive any other social security pension or
Healthcare Cards are available to people who receive other payments or allowances.
(see DHS http://www.humanservices.gov.au/>)
Government income support payments may be relied on as the only or main source of
income on leaving a violent relationship and, for some women, they may be a significant
source of income over a longer period. Low levels of income provided through the income
support system to women (including those eligible for parenting payments) who leave violent
relationships and for whom these payments may be a necessity—even if only in the short
term—can be a barrier to women’s financial stability (Branigan 2007). Payments may be
insufficient to meet costs for women who have to re-establish a home and who may have
legal, medical and other costs as well as debts arising from economic abuse and other
domestic violence (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011).
In recent years welfare reforms in Australia have been aimed at reducing ‘welfare
dependency’ through increased conditionality of payments and increased requirements on
people—including women with young children—to look for and engage in paid work as a
condition of eligibility for payments. While women who have experienced domestic violence
can apply for a temporary exemption from job search and other activity requirements (DHS
2011) the experiences of the women in Braaf and Barrett Meyering’s (2011) study indicate
that this exemption may not be secured by many women. They report that none of the
women in their study raised the exemption although the women were worried about their
ability to comply with ‘welfare to work’ requirements due to lack of childcare, health issues,
trauma and ongoing time commitments dealing with legal, medical and other matters. Some
service workers in the study reported that the exemption is extremely difficult to gain.
Other researchers and policy analysts have expressed concerns that ‘welfare to work’
initiatives are likely to increase marginalisation of women who have experienced domestic
and family violence (Murray & Powell 2008). These are concerns which echo those
expressed by researchers in the United States where there has been a longer experience of
welfare reform characterised by temporary assistance and a focus on workforce participation
(Tolman 2011). In that country there remain concerns that women may become more
dependent on abusive partners because of reduced options for leaving relationships and
also that the impacts of violence might limit women’s ability to comply with the welfare
system’s work requirements (Tolman 2011).
In Australia the interaction of the income support system and employment does not always
support women’s long-term financial security as there can be few incentives to gain
employment, including because increasing part-time work hours can result in a loss of
overall income and in loss of access to benefits such as a Healthcare Card (ADFVC 2010).
Further, recent changes restricting eligibility for parenting payment to parents with younger
children are still to take full effect and this will see increasing numbers of sole parents with
young children reliant on the lower levels of income support provided through Newstart
payments made to job-seekers. Thus, while income support should be a positive secondary
or tertiary intervention for families by providing protection against poverty, low levels of
payments and conditionality may leave women ill-equipped to become economically secure
at a time when they may also face multiple barriers to gaining security through employment
A recent initiative has extended the provisions for people receiving Centrelink payments to
opt for payments to be made on a weekly rather than fortnightly basis (DHS 2012, accessed
7 July 2012 at ). This kind of flexibility has been seen
as important for women experiencing family violence who may be managing a range of
financial demands—as has the option for advance payments—and and there have been
calls for these to be made more widely available (Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service,
McAuley Community Services for Women & Kildonan UnitingCare 2011).
There is an identified gap in regard to income support for women exiting domestic or family
violence who may be ineligible for income support payments, including for Special Benefit
which is provided to people in severe hardship but which is means and asset-tested. It has
been argued that domestic and family violence should be included among the eligibility
criteria for this payment (Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service 2011). In addition, women
who are migrants and have arrived in Australia on a spouse visa may be ineligible to access
income support payments on separating from a partner following domestic violence and they
may also not be permitted to work. While a woman may be able to claim the Special Benefit,
Centrelink may seek to recover payments from her sponsor who may be her ex-partner, a
situation which has been seen as placing the woman at increased risk of being subjected to
further violence (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011).
A crisis payment provided through Centrelink is equal to one week of a standard benefit, and
can be paid to people who experience severe financial hardship due to domestic violence
and who are already receiving Centrelink income support payments. The payment can be
made to people who have had to leave their home because of domestic or family violence or
who remain in the home after a family member left or was removed due to domestic
violence. However, women exiting violent relationships who are not eligible for Centrelink
payments cannot access this payment.
State governments also provide some crisis and hardship assistance and concessions for
people on low incomes. For example, in Victoria there is an annual energy concession for
low income households and a utility relief grant scheme to assist people in financial difficulty
with gas, electricity or water bills. However, most of these types of assistance are only
available to people who are eligible for a Health Care Card, thus excluding many women
escaping domestic violence who may have assets ‘on paper’ but who actually have very
limited immediate access to funds to pay for essential goods and services.
In 2007 the Howard Liberal-National Coalition Government introduced the income
management scheme under which a proportion of a person’s income support payments are
‘quarantined’ or able only to be spent on certain goods and services (for example, health
care, housing, food, clothing, education). While initially introduced as a compulsory scheme
in some Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and as part of a trial in Cape York,
provisions were also made for voluntary income management. The Labor Government has
maintained and extended the scheme and from July 2012 it will operate throughout the
Northern Territory and in five new locations, which are the local government areas of
Shepparton (Victoria), Bankstown (New South Wales), Rockhampton (Queensland),
Playford (South Australia) and Logan (Queensland). The income management scheme
utilises a ‘BasicsCard’ which a person can use to purchase goods and services from
approved businesses while there are restrictions on funds being spent on alcohol, tobacco,
pornographic material and gambling products. Other features of the scheme include
matched savings plans, money management services and training, financial counselling and,
in the case of voluntary participants, financial incentives for staying in the scheme
(Buckmaster & Ey 2012).
Income support payment recipients who may be put onto the income management scheme
are people who are referred by state or territory child protection authorities where children
are deemed to be neglected or at risk, people assessed by Centrelink social workers as
being ‘vulnerable’ and people who volunteer for income management. Indicators of
vulnerability are financial hardship, financial exploitation, failure to undertake reasonable
self-care and homelessness or risk of homelessness. Financial exploitation is described as
occurring “when a person is subject to undue pressure, harassment, violence, abuse,
deception or exploitation for resources by another person or people, including other family
members and community members” (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services
and Indigenous Affairs [FaHCSIA] 2012, section 126.96.36.199). Thus, people who are subjected
to economic abuse are specifically identified as targets for income management.
The stated objectives of the income management scheme include to reduce hardship and
deprivation, to help people to budget, to reduce discretionary spending on restricted items, to
reduce the likelihood of people being subject to harassment and abuse in relation to their
welfare payment and to encourage socially responsible behaviour, particularly in the care
and education of children (FaHCSIA 2012, section 11.1.30).
Income management has been controversial, attracting widespread criticism from
community and welfare bodies for being paternalist and stigmatising and as being poorly
supported by any evidence of its effectiveness (Buckmaster & Ey 2012). The extension of
the scheme to people experiencing economic abuse has been seen as blaming or targeting
victims of abuse and as casting them as responsible for the circumstances created by the
abuse, including by implying that lack of financial knowledge and financial management
skills are the causes of poverty and low income (ADFVC 2010).
Recent qualitative research exploring the experiences of women affected by domestic and
family violence reported that most women experienced Centrelink as helpful in providing
quick access to income support (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011). It also identified that the
following barriers experienced by women to accessing Centrelink services:
lack of readily available information about eligibility for different types of payments,
particularly the Crisis Payment and conflicting information about payments and
requirements from staff
lack of assistance in filling in Centrelink forms
having to frequently retell domestic violence experiences to different Centrelink staff
and/or having to do so in areas with no privacy and despite this information already
being on file;
lengthy waiting times for payments, gaps in payments and payments being cut off
due to administrative errors without compensation
negative encounters with Centrelink staff (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011, pp. 96-98)
In addition to experiencing a lack of easy access to information about Centrelink payments
and assistance women were not readily provided with information about legal entitlements,
such as Victims’ Compensation, a concern which applies not just to Centrelink but to service
providers in the community sector (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011).
Notably, a recent review of legal frameworks relating to family violence by the ALRC
produced the following recommendations:
Recommendation 4-2: The Department of Human Services should provide
information to customers about how family violence may be relevant to their
child support, family assistance and social security matters. This should be
provided in a variety of formats and should include relevant information about:
(c) privacy and information protection;
(d) support and services provided by the Child Support Agency, the
Family Assistance Office and Centrelink;
(e) referrals to Centrelink social workers and expert service providers;
(f) income management.
Recommendation 4-3: The Child Support Guide, the Family Assistance Guide,
and the Guide to Social Security Law should provide that, when family
violence-related safety concerns are identified, the Department of Human
Services staff providing customer services must refer the customer to a
Centrelink social worker or other expert service providers (ALRC 2011c, p. 12)
Child support and family assistance
The child support scheme was established in the late 1980s to enforce children’s rights to be
supported by both their parents following separation and it is administered through the
Commonwealth Department of Human Services (ALRC 2011a). Both parents of a child may
apply for child support and a formula is used to assess how much child support a parent
should pay. The formula considers both parents’ taxable income, the percentage of care
time each has for the child and the costs of all children. The assessment takes into account
both parents’ income, the care arrangements, and the number of dependent children.
Payees can choose to collect child support privately or payments can be collected and
transferred by the Department of Human Services on their behalf (ALRC 2011a; DHS 2012,
accessed 27 June 2012, ).
Research that has considered women’s experience relating to child support following
domestic and family violence has identified the following as problems: adequacy of the level
of child support payments; avoidance of child support payments by ex-partners—including
through gaining orders for parenting arrangements that they do not comply with; loss of
welfare payments or Family Tax Benefit based on assessments of child support payments
that are not actually received; lack of enforcement of child support agreements by the
Department of Human Services; and increased risk/threats of further violence in response to
women’s attempts to pursue child support payments (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011; Evans
2007; McKenzie & Cook 2007; Patrick, Cook & McKenzie 2008; Patrick, Cook & Taket 2007;
see also ALRC 2011c).
For women who have experienced economic abuse in their relationships, payment
avoidance by ex-partners is a continuation of economic abuse, a fact that was recognised by
the ALRC (2011c, p. 290) in its recent inquiry into legal frameworks relating to domestic and
family violence. Avoidance by the paying parent can be achieved by minimising income, by
paying child support late or irregularly, paying less than the assessment, or not paying at all.
While the Department of Human Services is empowered to conduct investigations it is not
required to conduct investigations in making administrative assessments and, in practice, it
does not usually actively investigate cases. In some cases this means that women must
collect evidence or investigate their ex-partner’s circumstances themselves or remain
financially disadvantaged (ALRC 2011c). The ALRC considered these issues, for the most
part, to be outside its scope as the terms of reference limited its inquiry to matters affecting
the safety of victims of family violence (ALRC 2011a, p. 4).
An alternative to a child support assessment is a private arrangement between parents that
does not involve the Department of Human Services. These arrangements were examined
as part of the ALRC (2011d) review. The ALRC concluded that there were adequate
safeguards in place to protect family violence victims against financial exploitation but that
‘private arrangements are likely to be unsuitable in many cases where family violence is
present as victims may collect less child support than they are entitled to, or no child support
at all, due to fear, pressure or coercion’ and also noted that ‘private arrangements may
provide a platform for continuing control or abuse’ (ALRC 2011c, p. 289). The ALRC (2011c)
also acknowledged that the experience of violence may lead to a decision not to seek child
support, to end child support or to accept insufficient child support and that actions initiated
by the Department of Human Services can endanger victims and open up possibilities for
pressure and coercion.
The ALRC recommended a host of changes to Department of Human Services practices to
address concerns for improving the agency identification of and response to family violence
and safety and decreasing opportunities for ongoing abuse and these are listed in full in
Appendix A of this report. Notably, in its considerations the ALRC (2011c, p. 131) included
financial security as an aspect of safety.
The child support system also interacts with the system of family assistance payments to
parents such that parents are obliged to seek child support payments to be eligible to
receive Family Tax Benefit. This means that a woman who does not seek child support from
an ex-partner due to fear of violence could be doubly disadvantaged by being denied Family
Tax Benefit. There is a family violence exemption enabling victims of family violence to opt
out of obtaining child support payments where this would place them at risk without a
consequent reduction to their Family Tax Benefit Part A payments and the recent ALRC
review recommended that this protective measure be strengthened through a number of
changes to the administrative Family Assistance Guide (ALRC 2011c). At the time of writing
it is not known what actions have been taken in response to these recommendations by the
Commonwealth Department of Human Services which has responsibility for this area.
Access to safe and affordable housing is a crucial issue for women escaping domestic and
family violence and while homelessness continues have major negative impacts there have
been some recent policy developments which have the objective of addressing these issues.
At the same time the broader context is one of chronic shortage of both emergency
accommodation and affordable housing in Australia.
Policies for addressing homelessness due to domestic and family violence are mostly
reactive or tertiary interventions as there is usually no awareness of the problem until a
woman leaves her home and seeks assistance (MacKenzie & Chamberlain 2003; Tually
2008). So, other than broad strategies for preventing domestic violence it has been
considered difficult to identify measures to prevent homelessness. However, in recent years
there have been some new initiatives which suggest better secondary interventions that may
increase the possibility for more women to remain in their homes safely after the perpetrator
of violence has left.
The Commonwealth’s White Paper on Homelessness, The Road Home (Australia 2008),
identified a need for expanded models of integrated support to enable women and children
experiencing domestic and family violence to remain safely in their own homes. New targets
for the Commonwealth and states in regard to reducing homelessness of women and
children were also set under the National Affordable Housing Agreement which is
underpinned by the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness between the
Commonwealth, states and territories, which has recently been reviewed (COAG 2012,
accessed 19 July 2012 at ).
Prior to the 2008 national agreement, some states and territories had introduced ‘safe at
home’ models of responses to homelessness precipitated by domestic and family violence
and the White Paper identified this type of strategy as an area for development (Australia
2008, p. 330). This model relies on an integrated response to family violence by the criminal
justice and health and community services sectors. The model allows women and their
children to stay in the home by removing the perpetrator and in this it is a response which
assumes perpetrators should be held accountable for their actions (Tually et al 2008). This
model can provide women and children with stability and enable them to maintain social
support and to experience less disruption to their participation in employment and education.
It is supported by legal arrangements in all Australian states and territories which provide for
perpetrators to be excluded from the home as a condition of domestic violence orders
(Bartels 2010). Service models also include: specialist workers to assess safety and support
needs, and brokerage funds to stabilise housing, increase home security and provide shortterm
rental subsidies or mortgage top ups (Australia 2008). However this approach is not
likely to be suitable for all women, especially where there is a high level of risk of ongoing
violence and the White Paper identifies a continued reliance on crisis accommodation, which
has been unable to meet demand over a considerable period (Australia 2008). There is also
some evidence that exclusion orders are rarely used (Bartels 2010), including because there
is some reluctance on the part of courts to use them (Wilcox & McFerran 2009; McFerran
Financial capability and other financial services and programs
While the term ‘financial capability’ may be used interchangeably with the term ‘financial
literacy’, here the former term is taken to be a broader concept than literacy and to include
the opportunity to develop financial stability through asset-building as well as through gaining
knowledge and skills (Landvogt 2006). Financial capability initiatives can be primary,
secondary and tertiary interventions, including, for example: primary interventions which aim
to provide financial education—including on gender issues—for young people through
school-based programs; primary or secondary interventions such as financial education for
women (for example, providing information on how superannuation works) and for
community sector workers (for example, training to increase understanding of key financial
issues for women and possible avenues of referral for assistance) and education for women
who have been subjected to violence (for example, microfinance to assist women to build
Australian Government policy and programs in this area includes the National Financial
Literacy Strategy which includes education as a primary intervention and an assortment of
mainly secondary and tertiary interventions that come under the banner of the Financial
Management Program, which includes emergency relief, microfinance, a retirement savings
information service, financial counselling, the Community Development Financial Institutions
pilot project providing low cost lending and the home energy saver scheme assisting low
income households. These programs are mostly provided in conjunction with the states and
territories, community sector agencies and corporate bodies such as lending institutions.
In 2011, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), the national financial
services regulation body, established the National Financial Literacy Strategy (the National
Strategy), building on existing initiatives in this area (ASIC 2011). The National Strategy
defines financial literacy as “the ability to make informed judgements and to take effective
decisions regarding the use and management of money” (ASIC 2011, p. 12). 6
The need for the strategy is identified as arising from “the growing range of financial
products available, changes in demography and increases in consumer responsibility for
superannuation decisions and retirement incomes” (ASIC 2011, p. 4). It is also noted that
there are significant disparities in knowledge and understanding of financial matters across
different groups in the community and that, while there can be significant benefits for
everyone, improving financial literacy will assist some to overcome or avoid financial
6 ASIC (2011, p. 12) notes that the term ‘financial capability’ ‘perhaps better expresses the concept of
acting on knowledge gained’ but that the term ‘financial literacy’ is ‘well embedded in Australia‘.
exclusion. In addition to increasing economic participation and social inclusion ASIC states
that increased financial literacy can “drive competition and market efficiency in the financial
services sector, and potentially reduce regulatory intervention” (ASIC 2011, p. 5).
ASIC identifies the groups as being most in need of financial literacy assistance as retirees
and pre-retirees, young people, Indigenous Australians, women and other groups with low
financial literacy or who are excluded from traditional avenues for financial information and
advice. However, it is not clearly articulated how the National Strategy will target these
groups. Partners in the development and implementation of the National Strategy are
identified as government bodies, education and financial institutions, businesses, unions and
non-government organisations including community groups and charities. The National
Strategy identifies existing education pathways (schools, vocational and adult education,
universities, workplaces) as priority avenues for extending financial literacy skills and
knowledge and places emphasis on “broad generational change” with its “key initiative” a
being a new consumer website, ‘MoneySmart’, providing “independent, free, reliable and
accessible personalised money guidance tools, designed to engage people and lead to
positive action motivation” (ASIC 2011, p. 7). An evaluation of MoneySmart among internet
users (Sweeney Research 2012) provides limited insight into how effective this type of
service might be for women who have low levels of financial literacy.
Various state and territory governments have at times specifically identified the improvement
of women’s financial literacy as a priority for women’s economic security including, for
example, the Northern Territory’s current women’s strategy (Northern Territory Government
2008). Economic security through education and employment is identified as one of five
priority areas and the strategy includes actions to increase women’s access to financial
planning. Individual state and territory agencies with responsibility for consumer affairs may
also provide and/or fund financial education initiatives.
Microfinance and low-cost lending
Microfinance incorporates a number of asset-building strategies for people on low incomes
and the microfinance strategies supported by government in Australia are matched savings
schemes and no or low interest loans schemes.
As noted in the discussion of income support payments above, matched savings programs
are available through Centrelink to some people receiving income support payments who
are being income managed. The Australian Government also funds microfinance programs
which are provided through community organisations, with largest of these being the Good
Shepherd Youth & Family Service no interest loans program which also receives significant
support from the National Australia Bank. 7 In the 2011-2012 federal budget the government
committed funding for this program of $24 million over four years (Macklin 2011) and the
program is now provided in over 400 locations around Australia (Good Shepherd Youth &
Family Service Microfinance 2012, accessed 24 June 2012 at ). As discussed in the section on
community services below the no interest loans scheme has been adapted to be used by
women leaving domestic and family violence to build household assets (Good Shepherd
Youth & Family Service 2012, accessed 24 June 2012 at < http://www.goodshepvic.org.au/
The Community Development Financial Institutions pilot project has provided funding to five
community finance organisations for business development and infrastructure costs. Its
7 This is now coordinated by Good Shepherd Microfinance (see
purpose is to “build the capacity and resilience of disadvantaged and financially excluded
individuals by attracting investment and injecting funds into community finance organisations
that offer them financial services and products that they would otherwise not be able to
access from mainstream sources” (Treasury 2012, p. 20). 8 The pilot is promoted by the
government as filling a gap between welfare and mainstream financial institutions and as
targeting individual who could afford financial products but cannot gain access to them
including because of discrimination in the lending market (Treasury 2012). The pilot is due to
be evaluated in 2012.
The Australian Government funds community service organisations and local government
bodies to provide financial counselling services to assist people experiencing financial
difficulty through the Commonwealth Financial Counselling services program administered
by FaHCSIA. Funded services include casework, individual advocacy, referral and
community education. While the range of organisations funded to provide financial
counselling services is diverse some organisations are providers of services to groups likely
to include people affected by family violence, including some domestic and family violence
services and family mediation services. 9
The Commonwealth Rural Financial Counselling Service funds state and regional bodies to
provide free financial counselling to “primary producers, fishers and small rural businesses
… who are suffering financial hardship and who have no alternative sources of impartial
support” (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry 2012, accessed 21 July 2012 at
http://www.daff.gov.au/agriculture-food/drought/rfcs/). Providers of these services may be
well placed to support women in rural communities experiencing economic abuse although
no research or data on the Australian experience was identified in literature and web
Legal assistance and legal costs
One final key public policy issue concerns the support available to women for representation
and advice in dealing with the myriad of legal issues that can result from domestic and family
violence and which can entail very significant costs.
Nationally, legal aid services are funded under a partnership agreement between the
Commonwealth Attorney General and legal aid commissions in each of the states and
territories. Family violence is among the priorities set out in the national agreement. In
Victoria this means duty lawyers are provided for family violence case lists in magistrates’
courts and Victoria Legal Aid also funds private lawyers to represent people in intervention
order cases. Funding is also provided for lawyers to represent respondents in these cases to
prevent women’s cross-examination by alleged perpetrators. Client means tests are also
reduced or absent in family violence cases. Family violence lawyers in community legal
centres are funded by the Victorian Government. So, while women generally have access to
representation in family violence matters they may have to pay for legal assistance in
dealing with property and other matters.
8 See .
9 A complete list of financial counselling services funded under the CFC is at
(accessed 21 July 2012).
Conclusion: public policies and economic abuse
At the societal level the issue of economic abuse is directly tackled by policies that focus on
equality for women and economic equality has been a strong theme in recent public policy in
Australia. While prevention has been a key focus of recent policies to address violence
against women there is little evidence of any specific attention to raising community
awareness of economic abuse as an aspect of domestic and family violence. At the other
end of the spectrum public policies framing responses to domestic and family violence
through tertiary interventions targeted at the individual level have a strong safety focus which
is largely a focus on physical safety at the point of crisis and on stopping further violence.
There is a stated objective to look to more holistic responses to violence and to involve
mainstream services in addressing women’s needs following violence. This is a trend which
may see a greater focus on women’s longer-term wellbeing including their financial
wellbeing. At present such a focus is evident in some areas including in homelessness
policies although in this area shortages of both crisis accommodation and affordable housing
continue to be chronic problems.
While there are a range of concerns with income support policies as they meet the needs of
women generally—especially women with children—the evidence suggests that there are
also shortcomings in the ways in which the system is able to respond to the immediate
needs of women exiting domestic violence. There are two separate aspects to this: the first
concerns the administration of the current system whereby women experience problems
accessing the supports that are available, and the second is that the system is not designed
to meet the needs of this group of women–rather a series of exceptions and add-on
arrangements have been made. The first issue is one which received considerable attention
in the recent review of legal frameworks relating to family violence conducted by the ALRC
(2011c) and one outcome of that review was a large number of recommendations to improve
responses for people experiencing violence. Addressing the second issue is probably more
difficult, including because there is a very poor evidence-base relating to the nature of the
problems women face and how they fare over time, including how immediate hardship on
escaping violence might impact on women’s ability to gain financial security in the longer
term. In relation to the income management scheme it is difficult to see how this will assist
people experiencing domestic and family violence while it may lead to stigmatisation.
As with income support the interaction of the child support and family assistance
arrangements with economic abuse are issues that have been taken up in the recent ALRC
review and are the subject of recommendations for change. If the recommendations are
acted on they may go some way to addressing present problems associated with these
arrangements that include the continuation of economic abuse after women have left
relationships. However, problems which may require additional responses concern the
adequacy of payments, and avoidance of child support payments including through
manipulation of care arrangements.
Key issues relating to the ways in which public policies impact on women’s access to
affordable legal assistance following economic abuse are difficult to identify due to the
diversity of legal matters women may be dealing with. Other complicating factors are
differences in laws and systems of legal assistance across states and territories. In addition,
there is limited research about the pathways through legal systems that women might take to
regain economic security following domestic violence and any problems they may face. This
is an area which requires further research.
The need to build women’s financial capability has been identified in public policies directed
to equality for women, in policies to address violence against women and in the national
financial literacy strategy. However, there may be potential to develop new responses in this
Legal and Regulatory Frameworks
Australia’s legal framework for dealing with family violence and safety is complex and
includes state and territory and Commonwealth laws. In addition there are a large number of
other legal frameworks which have some bearing on domestic and family violence. Rather
than trying to capture the full breadth of frameworks the discussion in this section focuses on
some key areas of law and regulation which have significance for understandings of and
responses to economic abuse. These are:
consumer protection laws and regulations.
This list by no means covers all areas of regulation that may be relevant. However, these
areas have particular importance to economic abuse. The foregoing discussion of public
policies captured issues in some other key areas of law, for example, child support and
Economic abuse in domestic and family violence laws
Regulatory changes in some Australian states since the mid-2000s have seen the formal
acknowledgement of economic abuse as a form of domestic and family violence in law and
there is evidence of general support for this. For example, submissions in response to a
recent proposal that all state and territory family violence legislation should expressly
recognise economic abuse were reported as being “overwhelming (in) support” of the
proposal (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010, p. 176). 10 However, economic abuse is not yet included in
all state and territory legislation. In addition, there is no clear evidence that where there is
legal recognition that this is reflected widely in legal actions and processes responding to
domestic and family violence (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010). While the recency of some legislative
changes makes it difficult to assess how they might impact on outcomes for women it is also
the case that there are few readily identifiable sources of collated information concerning the
outcomes of these provisions in legal processes and decisions.
In the Victorian Government’s Family Violence Protection Act 2008 family violence has been
(a) behaviour by a person towards a family member of that person if that
is physically or sexually abusive; or
is emotionally or psychologically abusive; or
is economically abusive; or
is threatening; or
is coercive; or
10 Notably the Law Society of New South Wales opposed the inclusion of economic abuse on the
grounds that it would be difficult to prove (ALRC/NSWLRC 2010, p. 216)
in any other way controls or dominates the family member and causes
that family member to feel fear for the safety or wellbeing of that family
member or another person;
(b) behaviour by a person that causes a child to hear or witness, or otherwise
be exposed to the effects of, behaviour referred to in paragraph (a).
Other states and territories that have explicitly included economic abuse in the definition of
family violence are Tasmania, South Australia, the Northern Territory and, in a very recent
development, Queensland where the Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012—
which commences in September 2012—provides an expanded definition of domestic and
family violence which includes emotional and economic abuse and exposure of children
(ALRC/NSWLRC 2010; Queensland 2012, accessed 12 June 2012, at ). The longest standing Australian legislation
to include economic abuse is the state Family Violence Act 2004 in Tasmania where, unlike
most other jurisdictions, it is a criminal offence. However, the ALRC and NSWLRC (2010, p.
1987, fn 40) have noted that commissioners are not aware of any prosecution in Tasmania
for economic abuse.
Recognising economic abuse in other legislation
At the national level, a range of differing definitions of domestic and family violence are in
place. A recent ALRC (2011c) review of legal frameworks relating to family violence
recommended that legislation be amended to include a consistent definition of family
violence, requiring amendments to: the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth); Social Security
(Administration Act) 1999 (Cth); Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989 (Cth); Child Support
(Registration and Collection) Act 1988 (Cth); A New Tax System (Family Assistance) Act
1999 (Cth); A New Tax System (Family Assistance) (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth); and
Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth). The ALRC recommended that ‘family violence’ should be
defined by reference to:
a. a core definition of conduct that is violent, threatening, coercive or controlling, or
intended to cause the family member to be fearful; and
b. a non-exhaustive list of examples of physical and non-physical conduct.
The examples provided by the ALRC are:
a. physical violence
b. sexual assault and other sexually abusive behaviour;
c. economic abuse
d. emotional or psychological abuse
f. kidnapping or deprivation of liberty
g. damage to property, irrespective of whether the victim owns the property
h. causing injury or death to an animal irrespective of whether the victim owns the
i. behaviour by the person using violence that causes a child to be exposed to the
effects of behaviour referred to in (a)–(h) above. (ALRC 2011, p. 12)
The ALRC also recommended that a common interpretative framework for domestic and
family violence be adopted in Australian Government guidelines and materials to provide for
a consistent definition of family violence, including in the following:
a. DEEWR and Job Services Australia Guidelines, Advices and Job Aids;
b. Fair Work Australia material;
c. Fair Work Ombudsman material;
d. Safe Work Australia Codes of Practice and other material; and
e. other similar material. (ALRC 2011c, p. 11)
The ALRC has also recommended that where relevant and appropriate, all Australian
Prudential Regulation Authority, Department of Human Services, Australian Taxation Office
and superannuation fund material, should provide for a consistent definition of family
violence in line with its guideline (ALRC 2011c, p. 11). At the time of writing it was not known
whether any of these changes had been made.
Very recent changes to the Commonwealth Family Law Act 1975 have seen a broadening of
the definition of family violence in family law including the incorporation of economic abuse.
Family violence is now defined as “violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that
coerces or controls a member of the person’s family (the family member), or causes the
family member to be fearful” (Family Law Act 1975 s4AB). Examples of behaviour which
may constitute family violence include the following:
(g) unreasonably denying the family member the financial autonomy that he or
she would otherwise have had; or
h) unreasonably withholding financial support needed to meet the reasonable
living expenses of the family member, or his or her child, at a time when the
family member is entirely or predominantly dependent on the person for
financial support. (Family Law Act 1975 s4AB)
Family law matters include separation and divorce, relationships with children and property
matters. While the ways in which family law systems and processes operate in all of these
matters can have significance for women’s economic outcomes, in relation to economic
abuse the settlement of property is significant. Child support arrangements are also
significant and some of the key issues with these were discussed in the previous section
concerned with policy issues. In relation to property settlements two recent law reform
reviews have recommended that the Australian Government “should initiate an inquiry into
how family violence should be dealt with in respect of property proceedings under the Family
Law Act 1975 (Cth)” (ALRC 2011c, p. 630). Some of the issues relevant to economic abuse
and property settlements are highlighted in the discussion of superannuation below.
Unequal participation in employment—including the problem of gender pay inequity—places
women at a disadvantage compared to men in regard to their financial wellbeing in
retirement. For example, the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees has estimated
that the “median superannuation balance for women aged between 55 and 64 years is
$53,000, compared to $90,000 for men in the same age group” (de Silva & Harnath 2011, p.
However, there are also some particular aspects of superannuation arrangements and its
regulation that are specifically relevant to economic abuse. The first of these concerns the
possibility of loss of personal superannuation through economic abuse and the second
concerns the option for women to access their superannuation early (that is, prior to
retirement) when they may need money on leaving an abusive relationship.
In its recent review the ALRC identified three ways in which women could lose their own
superannuation through economic abuse, each of which involves coercion. The first is
through a superannuation agreement made under the Commonwealth Family Law Act
(1975) which is a form of financial agreement made by a couple which is a binding contract
describing how their property or finances (in this case one or both parties’ superannuation)
are to be dealt with (ALRC 2011b, p. 37). The second possible means of loss of
superannuation through economic abuse is where a partner has been coerced to ‘split’ her
superannuation contributions so a proportion is paid into her partner’s fund (ALRC 2011b).
The ALRC (2011b) concluded that while there were some protections in the Family Law Act
1975 to address the possibility of economic abuse through these two means further
investigation is needed to consider the ways in which federal family courts consider family
violence in property proceedings. The ALRC (2011d, p. 467) reiterated an earlier
ALRC/NSWLRC (2010) recommendation that “the Australian Government should initiate an
inquiry into how family violence should be dealt with in respect of property proceedings
under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (and) (a)ny such inquiry should include consideration
of the treatment of superannuation in proceedings involving family violence”. This
recommendation captures the ALRC’s broader concern that family violence should be
considered by the family court both in assessing contributions and in considering the
distribution of assets following separation. In their report the ALRC (2011d, p. 466) cite a
case in which the adverse impacts of family violence on a person’s contribution were taken
into account by a court.
The third possible means of loss of superannuation through economic abuse is where
superannuation is in a self-managed superannuation fund. These are funds where the
trustees are the only members of the fund and over 90 per cent of such funds have two
members, mostly spouses (ALRC 2011c, p. 467, fns 32-36). The ALRC (2011c) concluded
that victims of family violence who are also trustees of self-managed superannuation funds
require additional protection and made a number of recommendations for changes to the
guidelines provided to self-managed superannuation fund trustees by the regulator—the
ATO—including the provision of specific information and examples concerning family
violence. The ALRC (2011d, p. 471) also pointed to the need for the ATO to avoid
compliance actions that exacerbate or harm the disadvantage suffered by a fund trustee
experiencing family violence but did not go as far as recommending that the ATO should be
required to consider family violence when determining appropriate compliance action,
apparently in response to stakeholder submissions from the Australian Institute of
Superannuation Trustees. The other possible areas for reform were identified as concerning
professional standards, training and licensing exemptions for self-managed superannuation
fund advisers and the ALRC directed these to the national government bodies (ATO, ASIC
and Treasury) that are involved in reform of regulatory arrangements for financial advice.
A final issue with superannuation concerns whether a woman leaving abuse can access part
of her superannuation funds early. Normally, funds are preserved until retirement age
although there is provision for early release of some funds on the grounds of financial
hardship or on compassionate grounds. The ALRC (2011c) has proposed a range of
changes to administrative guidelines to enable better decision-making with proper
consideration of family violence, while also accepting arguments that the financial hardship
faced by women on leaving abuse should be properly addressed through the income support
system. At least one submission to the ALRC on this issue pointed to the fact of women’s
existing disadvantage in accumulation of superannuation and argued that early access
compounds this disadvantage (Women’ Legal Service NSW 2011). A further issue identified
by the ALRC was the potential for any loosening of early release provisions to make it easier
for an abusive person to coerce a woman to seek release of her superannuation savings.
Proposals made by the ALRC include some minor loosening of qualifying periods on income
support payments for eligibility and for the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority to
provide guidance materials for superannuation fund trustees—who make the decision
whether to release funds or not—which include reference to family violence and information
about family violence dynamics and impacts (ALRC 2011c, p. 630).
The recent ALRC/NSWLRC report into a national legal response to family violence argued
that “victims’ compensation is inextricably connected with an assessment of how legal
frameworks can be improved to assist victims of family violence to navigate various
jurisdictions” (2010, p. 156). Victims’ compensation schemes, which are available in all
states and territories, appear to be under-utilised by women as a source of financial support
following domestic and family violence. It has been suggested by researchers and legal
bodies that this may be due in part to a lack of knowledge of the schemes while there are
also particular barriers related to the nature of victims’ compensation legislation including
that there is inadequate recognition of the nature and dynamics of family violence
(ALRC/NSWLRC 2010; Barrett Meyering 2010). Limitations relate to the linking of
compensation to specific criminal acts of violence and to criminal injuries, meaning that acts
of family violence may not be recognised as criminal. Further each discrete ‘incident’ and
‘injury’ must be proved which does not recognise the patterns of abuse that typically
constitute family violence; generally, definitions of ‘injury’ also emphasise physical injury
(ALRC/NSWLRC 2010). These limitations have been addressed in some jurisdictions (New
South Wales and Northern Territory) where victims’ compensation legislation defines
domestic violence as a specific injury and in Victoria where awards can be granted in
respect of “significant adverse impacts”. The ALRC/NSWLRC report recommended that
victims’ compensation legislation should: (a) provide that evidence of a pattern of
family violence may be considered in assessing whether an act of violence or injury
occurred; (b) define family violence as a specific act of violence or injury … or (c)
extend the definition of injury to include other significant adverse impacts
(ALRC/NSWLRC 2010, p. 1393).
The ALRC (2011c) has recently made some recommendations for law reform which go
some way to addressing concerns about the particular vulnerability to coercion and control of
women experiencing family violence whose migration status is uncertain.
As the law stands there is a family violence exception whereby permanent residence can be
granted—despite relationship breakdown—to people on spousal or partner visas who are in
Australia on the basis of their spouse or defacto relationship with an Australian citizen or
permanent resident and who experience family violence. The ALRC (2011c) recommended
changes to the Commonwealth Migration Regulations 1994 to make the assessment of
family violence under migration law simpler by allowing family violence victims to draw on a
wider range of evidence and the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has very recently
announced these changes will be made (Bowen 2012, media release 17 June, viewed 25
July at ).
The Australian Government has not yet responded to other ALRC recommendations
although the Minister’s announcement did include that the proposed change is a “preliminary
response” to the issues raised by the ALRC. Other ALRC recommendations for changes to
migration law were for: the family violence exception to be extended to people who have
entered Australia for the purpose of marrying an Australian sponsor and are on a
Prospective Marriage visa but who experience family violence and do not marry the sponsor;
and for the creation of a new temporary visa for partners of temporary visa holders or
‘secondary’ visa holders who experience violence to enable them to access services and
make arrangements to return to their country of origin or to apply for another visa (ALRC
2011c, p. 46).
The ALRC (2011c) report also recommended that the Minister issue a direction to strengthen
Australia’s response to people seeking protection in Australia as refugees on the basis of
their experience of family violence. Other recommendation were: for a review of Migration
Review Tribunal application fees—including on their impact on victims of family violence; for
improved education and training on family violence issues for migration services providers;
and for the provision of family violence information to visa applicants (ALRC 2011c).
While there is currently no protection for victims of family and domestic violence under
Australian anti-discrimination laws community views on this have recently been sought in a
public discussion paper on the consolidation of the various Commonwealth antidiscrimination
laws (Attorney-General’s Department, 2011). The particular areas of concern
identified in the discussion paper are in relation to discrimination in housing and
employment. Submissions to the process closed in February 2012 and draft legislation is
expected to be released for comment some time in 2012. 11
Consumer protection regulation
Following economic abuse women may have to manage banking, loans, consumer credit,
bills and debts to stop the continuation of abuse, to disentangle their finances and to
establish manageable ongoing financial arrangements. They may be dealing with these
issues while also in circumstances of hardship and in some cases having had little
experience of managing finances. Immediate issues may be to do with being left with debts,
being on a low income, needing to separate finances, having poor access to credit, and
having extra costs due to relocation and re-establishment of a household.
Women may have to deal with banks and credit providers to sort out joint accounts, apply for
loans, re-negotiate repayments and attempt to separate out liabilities. Women may have
liability for bills and debts that have been run up by ex-partners but are in their names. For
those on low incomes common problems may be with bills and debts for essential services
and products such as utilities and telecommunications, while there are potentially a much
broader range of bills and debts that women can face as a result of economic abuse.
Examples identified in the research literature include ‘acquired debts’, for example, fines due
to ex-partners’ traffic or other infringements relating to their use of cars registered in
women’s names (for example, speeding and parking fines and road tolls), and bills for
household and other items bought through hire purchase or deferred payment arrangements
(Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011; Branigan 2004; Evans 2007; Fraser, Hunter & Borrell 2011).
In addition there may be bills or debts relating to purchases or to ongoing commitments
which are in both names or in the woman’s name only.
There is a range of regulatory arrangements for consumer protection that are relevant to the
managements of personal debt, credit, banking and bills. These include broad consumer
11 The discussion paper and information on the consultation can be found at
laws and a variety of other ‘soft’ regulation such as industry codes and individual company
policies. Shortcomings in the effectiveness of these arrangements for protecting vulnerable
consumers—especially people on low incomes—have been highlighted in various consumer
and community sector submissions made during recent reform processes, as outlined below.
In relation to women experiencing domestic and family violence identified issues in the
research literature include: lack of access to affordable credit; bank fees and charges; lack of
readily accessible information about hardship policies; having to explain the experience of
domestic violence to financial institutions and service providers; providers’ resistance to
splitting bills; requirements to pay reconnection fees; and providers making adverse credit
reports while the woman is repaying part of a debt but her ex-partner is not (Arashiro 2011;
Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011).
A single national consumer credit regulatory regime came into existence only recently with
the introduction of the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009. The Act includes a
National Credit Code that replaced previous state-based consumer credit codes (ASIC 2012,
viewed 18 July 2012, ). Subsequently two legislative amendments have been introduced with the purposes
of strengthening consumer protections. The first, which took effect in July 2012, is the
National Consumer Credit Protection Amendment (Home Loans and Credit Cards) Act 2011
which increases requirements on lenders to give prospective borrowers information and
places some limits on fees and on lenders’ invitations to borrowers to increase their credit
limits (Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services [PJCCFS]
2011). The second is the Consumer Credit and Corporations Legislation Amendment
(Enhancements) Bill 2011 (the Credit Enhancements Bill) which at time of writing had yet to
be passed by the Senate. The Bill contains: provisions to introduce caps on interest charged
on short-term ‘payday’ loans, provisions to make it easier to vary loans in response to
hardship; new requirements on reverse mortgages; and increased regulation of consumer
leases (PJCCFS 2011).
Payday loans or same day cash advances may be attractive or seen as the only option for
people faced with immediate financial problems and who may be unable to access other
credit options; approval is granted quickly and sometimes without credit checks. However,
loans generally have high fees and much higher interest than ‘mainstream’ bank and credit
union loans making them difficult to repay. In general these sorts of loans have been seen
as very harmful with few if any benefits for people on low incomes (Banks 2011). While
consumer and community services groups welcomed proposals to address concerns with
credit practices, particularly in regard to ‘fringe’ lenders and payday loans (Consumer Action
Law Centre 2011), they have viewed the final reform proposals as inadequate, with one
consumer advocate describing them as allowing annual interest rates on credit of up to 240
per cent and as ‘fall(ing) far short of effective protection’ (Lowe 2012, viewed 25 July 2012,
Other regulations providing protections for consumers in their dealings with financial
institutions include industry codes of practice such as the Code of Banking Practice, the
Credit Union Code of Practice and the Building Society Code of Practice (ASIC 2012). These
are voluntary codes, developed by industry and which individual organisations sign up to
(ASIC 2012). While ASIC has oversight industry bodies monitor their members’ compliance
with codes. 12 The codes set out broad obligations while individual organisations have their
own policies, including in response to customer hardship. Some of these company policies
specifically identify relationship or family breakdown as possible reasons for a customer
12 See for example the Australian Bankers’ Association (ABA) Code of Banking Practice (ABA 2004)
and the industry’s Code Compliance Monitoring Committee, accessed 21 July 2012 at
equiring assistance or consideration due to hardship, 13 although it is not readily apparent
from banks’ public customer information that there is any awareness of the circumstances of
someone who has been subject to economic abuse.
Consumer protection regulations—including arrangements for people experiencing
hardship—exist for many commercial and other products and services and may be important
for both protecting women from economic abuse and for people escaping from violence and
re-building their lives. However, as illustrated in the quote below from recent research, even
where such arrangements are in place, there is often no guarantee that assistance can be
What I’ve noticed recently is bills are coming in now and I’m ‘Gee, I’ve never
had to deal with bills on my own before’ and on the bills it doesn’t say
anywhere, there’s no information about if you’re on the Health Care Card you
only have to pay this amount — so I don’t know. Is there a $20 saving or is it
$100? I don’t know. So recently I’ve had to transfer my car into my name with
registration and I thought, oh no, here comes a $600 bill next month for
registration. I phoned them and said, ‘I’m on a healthcare card, what’s the
thing with that?’. ‘Oh yes, well you can pay it in two halves and also there’s a
$90 difference’. And I thought, ‘Well, why don’t you say that on the bill?
There’s no information! Mary (quoted in Arashiro 2011, p. 29)
As with the regulation of consumer credit, consumer protection in other areas comprises a
complex mix with considerable reliance on soft regulation in the form of industry selfregulation
via voluntary codes. For example, in relation to telecommunications (including
mobile phones, residential phones and internet), some consumer protections are set out in
general consumer law through the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 and
Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999, with the latter
including access to an external dispute resolution service through the Telecommunications
Industry Ombudsman. However, most consumer protection in regard to telecommunications
is through industry codes, industry standards and service provider rules. While these are
overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (Australian
Communications and Media Authority [ACMA] 2011, pp. 19-20), consumer groups have
been critical of ACMA’s weak powers of enforcement of the main regulatory mechanism,
which is the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code which has been developed by
the industry body, Communications Alliance. Consumer advocates have argued that some
consumer protections—including hardship protection—should be contained in a mandatory
industry standard rather than in the industry-developed code (Australian Communications
Consumer Action Network [ACCAN] 2011). However, this change has not occurred in recent
reforms which followed a public inquiry (ACMA 2011); rather there has been some
strengthening of protections contained in a revised Telecommunications Consumer
Protection Code (Communications Alliance 2012), which comes into force in September
The Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code sets out some new protective
requirements relating to contracts and to credit and debt management, including financial
hardship policies. There has been limited response by welfare and consumer groups
concerning the likely effectiveness of the increased protections for vulnerable and low
income customers. It remains the case that telecommunications providers each have their
own financial hardship policy which will no doubt be updated to reflect recent changes to the
code. Existing codes vary in that some specifically identify ‘family breakdown’ as a reason
See for example ANZ bank at http://www.anz.com/about-us/corporateresponsibility/customers/financial-hardship/).
for hardship, although as with the bank policies discussed above, there is no explicit
acknowledgement of domestic or family violence as a possible cause of customer problems.
Consumer protection relating to utilities including water, gas and electricity are similarly
made up of a mix of broad industry oversight, voluntary codes and individual company
policies which may or may not recognise domestic or family violence and provide for
appropriate responses to economic abuse. Within regulatory frameworks individual company
practices in relation to joint billing, payment methods, billing cycles, late payments,
disconnections and reconnections as well as company customer services practices can vary
considerably (Victorian Council of Social Service 2009). These can all impact on the ability of
women to stop abuse, to manage bills and debts, to access services and to retain access to
Provision of financial advice
An additional area of regulation which provides some consumer protection concerns the
provision of financial advice. The extent to which financial advisors might be relied on as a
source of advice from women experiencing economic abuse is not known. This is an area
which might benefit from further research. There has been considerable reform in regulation
of financial advice over recent years which has included new requirements on financial
advisers to act in the best interests of their clients and also some measures to expand the
availability of low cost advice (Treasury 2012, viewed 13 July 2012,
Conclusion: legal and regulatory frameworks and economic abuse
The inclusion of economic abuse in most state and territory family violence laws and, in
particular, in the Commonwealth Family Law Act 1975 paves the way for a common
framework for domestic and family violence in a wide range of legal and regulatory
instruments which impact on protections for women and responses to economic abuse (for
example social security, child support, migration). In addition these changes to laws may be
important for generating greater awareness of economic abuse as a form of family and
domestic violence. This also applies to the take-up of the ALRC’s (2011c) recommendations
for changes to relevant laws and guidelines of Fair Work Australia, Safe Work Australia,
DEEWR and Job Services Australia the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority,
Department of Human Services, Australian Taxation Office and superannuation fund
materials. The Australian Government has announced one positive change which
acknowledges and responds to the situation of some women who do not have residency or
Citizenship. However, there remain a number of gaps in protection in the case of temporary
visa holders who experience abuse as well as possible changes which could be made,
including in relation to Migration Review Tribunal fees.
Victims’ compensation and property settlements may be crucial to fair outcomes for women
who have experienced economic abuse and the discussion in this section has only touched
on some of the key issues. Again there is a dearth of information in regard to outcomes for
women and about how processes operate to support effective responses to abuse. The
ALRC (2011c) has recommended changes to victims’ compensation legislation and also
investigation to consider the ways in which federal family courts consider family violence in
property proceedings and the latter would be a positive step towards clearly identifying how
to develop appropriate interventions. Property settlements may also be a key mechanism for
addressing economic abuse involving a woman’s superannuation. The extent of abuse in
relation to self-managed superannuation funds is an issue that could be monitored to
establish if there is a need for responses in addition to the changes to ATO guidelines for
self-managed superannuation fund trustees recommended by the ALRC (2011c).
The ALRC (2011c) has recommended some provisions to make it easier for a woman to
access some of her superannuation funds prior to retirement. While this access may be
extremely helpful to women who need funds at a time of crisis there is a very strong
argument for the development of alternative options through the income support system or
some other arrangement. The depleting of women’s superannuation savings may create
disadvantage in the long term and it can be seen as a continuation of economic abuse.
Consumer protection is a crucial area of regulation for women experiencing economic abuse
because it affects the forms economic abuse take, women’s ability to stop abuse, their ability
to manage financially on leaving a relationship and their options for re-establishing financial
security and wellbeing. Recent regulatory reform in relation to consumer credit has not
resulted in effective tightening of regulation making it imperative that women have access to
appropriate financial products so they are not forced to rely on high interest products
provided by fringe lenders. Consumer protection in relation to other products and essential
services relies heavily on voluntary codes and company policies and this means there may
be a need for education and information for individual providers to raise awareness and
understanding of economic abuse and to identify appropriate responses.
Recent regulatory reform of the financial advice industry has included measures to increase
the availability of low cost advice. The use of financial advisers by women experiencing
abuse and any understanding within the profession of domestic and family violence are
areas about which little is known.
Employment Frameworks, Policies and Practices
In contemporary public policy, participation in employment is generally regarded as the
primary means for women to gain economic wellbeing while it has also been identified as a
key pathway from domestic violence to economic independence and self-sufficiency (Barrett
Meyering 2010). Significant gender inequities exist for women when it comes to gaining
economic security through employment participation. These include gender pay inequities
and women’s over-representation in low-paid and insecure employment, both of which are
linked to broader social inequities. Gender segregation in employment also services to
reinforce traditional gender stereotypes. Reduced lifetime employment including because of
pregnancy, childbirth and caring for children or other family members can also have negative
impacts on overall financial security through employment and result in less accumulated
superannuation and fewer other savings for retirement (Cassells et al. 2009).
Recent policy developments have seen some positive developments to address some of
these broader gender inequities, including the introduction of paid maternity leave and the
success of a national gender pay equity case for social and community services workers
(Baird, Williamson & Heron 2012; McCrystal & Smith 2011). However, significant gender pay
inequities continue to exist—supported by women’s concentration in particular occupations
and industries—while problems associated with increased insecurity in employment continue
to disproportionately affect women, including because much part-time employment is casual
employment. Casual employment, which is without paid leave entitlements, makes up a
quarter of all women’s employment (ABS 2011).
In Australia and elsewhere there has been some attention to workplaces as sites for
addressing domestic and family violence through primary, secondary and tertiary
interventions and all of these are also direct means of preventing or responding to economic
abuse. In relation to primary interventions, as outlined above, contemporary domestic and
family violence policies specifically identify employment participation and equality in
employment as preventative measures supporting women’s economic independence. Other
areas of public policy which impact on women’s workforce participation are childcare,
education and training, employment assistance and income support, and these are also
important tertiary interventions for women who have experienced domestic and family
Secondary interventions prevent discrimination against women who have been subjected to
violence, use the workplace as a site for women to gain access to support and information
and make workplaces safe and supportive for women who have been subjected to domestic
and family violence. Relevant regulation in addition to employment regulation includes antidiscrimination
and workplace health and safety, and strategies include education and
training for employers and employees about domestic and family violence.
Tertiary interventions respond to violence through provision of assistance and employee
entitlements such as paid leave for women who have been subjected to domestic and family
violence. In addition to workplace relations legislation and industrial instruments (for
example, collective enterprise agreements and awards) anti-discrimination legislation is
relevant here. The other significant area of tertiary intervention is the facilitation of
participation in employment by women who have been subjected to domestic and family
violence including through individual job search, training and other employment assistance.
There is little published research relating to effective responses in this area and it could be
the focus of further investigation. Past Commonwealth employment programs specifically
targeted to assist sole parents including the Jobs Education and Training program are
considered by community sector groups to have been positive initiatives for women who are
parents and carers (ACOSS 2012).
The discussion that follows considers some key areas of policy, practice and regulation
relating to these issues. First it examines areas for regulatory intervention which are
primarily directed to preventing violence through protective workplace measures. It then
goes on to examine policies and practices relating to employment assistance and support,
including for women who have experienced violence. The final section is a brief
consideration of some preventative education and awareness raising strategies which have
been targeted to workplaces and this discussion points to some issues and gaps around the
engagement of key stakeholders.
Responding to violence and regulating for security and safety at work
Protective and tertiary interventions for women who have experienced family or domestic
violence include the provision of paid leave clauses in enterprise agreements which set out
employment conditions. Over the last couple of years family violence clauses providing leave
provisions have been included in a number of enterprise agreements, including for public
sectors workers in various states (Domestic Violence Workplace Rights & Entitlements
Project 2011). These arrangements may well be picked up in other industries. A more
comprehensive employment response to family violence would be for the inclusion of family
violence in modern awards, which set out the minimum conditions for most employees in
Australia. However, these awards are currently being reviewed and they may not be due for
further systematic review for another four years. The other regulatory frameworks governing
employment are the Fair Work Act and the National Employment Standards. Family violence
leave provisions could be included in the latter while the Fair Work Act could provide for
flexible work arrangements to meet the needs of someone experiencing domestic or family
violence. These types of arrangements have been suggested by the ALRC (2011c) in its
Workplace health and safety legislation in each state and territory set out employers’
obligations to provide safe and healthy workplaces. Recent initiatives promoting workplace
responses to violence against women have included guides for the development of
workplace safety plans for individual workers at risk of domestic and family violence. These
projects also provide training materials, policy templates, model clauses, and guides for
managers and supervisors and co-workers for responding to domestic and family violence
VicHealth 2012; ADFVC Safe at Home, Safe at Work, ).
Who’s leading change in workplaces?
There have been a range of responses to domestic and family violence led by employers
and corporate sponsors in Australia. One initiative specifically targeting workplace as sites
for secondary and tertiary interventions is Australia’s CEO Challenge, a not-for-profit body
which works with the corporate sector and domestic and family violence services in
Queensland “to create and sustain a world free from family violence—where homes and
workplaces are places of safety and care”. This organisation facilitates partnerships between
corporate bodies and domestic and family violence services to sponsor services and
programs and it also provides workplace education and training “to educate employers and
their staff to recognise and deal with violence … and (to) educat(e) employers on how to
best respond to an employee who may need help”. (,
viewed 24 June 2012).
Other initiatives that rely on engaging employers have been led by federal and state
governments with the consequences that they involve large organisations and the public
sector and that small businesses are ‘largely absent’ (Chung, Zufferey & Powell 2012, p. 39;
see also Murray & Powell 2008). Other initiatives with government funding include the White
Ribbon’ campaign which targets men’s awareness and understanding of economic abuse
including through working with large corporations. Other bodies have also targeted
workplaces as sites for action including for example Women’s Health Victoria which has
developed a guide for community organisations to provide professional development
programs to prevent violence against women to businesses (Women’s Health Victoria 2012).
These types of initiatives may have some success targeting smaller employers and
employer bodies although it is not known if they have done so.
Conclusion: participation, supportive workplaces and safety at work
While employment participation is increasingly essential for lifetime economic wellbeing
there remain significant gender inequities in opportunities for equitable participation and
reward from work. These concerns have been at the centre of some recent policy
developments in Australia and are key issues for all women as well as preventative
measures at the societal level in relation to economic abuse. There are a range of secondary
and tertiary responses which can be implemented at the workplace level to ensure women
are safe at work and also to support those who experience violence. With federal funding of
the ADFVC Safe at Home, Safe at Work project and commitment from the trade unions
representing large public and community sector workforces (often female-dominated) there
appears to be considerable momentum to implement these types of interventions. However,
for the achievement of change which includes protection for women employed in smaller
enterprises there would need to be broader regulatory change through changes to the
National Employment Standards, the Fair Work Act and/or to anti-discrimination laws. There
may also be opportunities for education and awareness raising targeted to small businesses.
Strategies to assist women gain employment are likely to be critical for those women who
have been outside of the paid workforce for any period of time, including as a result of
Community Services Policies and Practices
This section describes some of the key connections between the community services sector
and economic abuse. Key services and programs relating to economic abuse are mainly
tertiary interventions, including some services that are specifically designed to assist
individual women experiencing domestic and family violence as well as more general
services such as financial counselling, legal assistance, accommodation assistance, material
aid and financial education programs. Service providers in these areas are also active in
developing and providing secondary interventions, for example education and training for
workers and systemic advocacy.
This section is primarily organised around different sectors of community services providers
and considers the ways in which they relate to economic abuse. First, however, it draws
attention to some recent research findings and to development work by community sector
organisations concerning some possible gaps and/or priorities for service responses that are
not sector specific or that may require collaborative responses.
Recent findings relating to service and program gaps
In Braaf and Barrett Meyering’s (2011) recent study, workers in a variety of community
services (for example, domestic violence, health service, legal service) identified financial
issues as being raised regularly in their discussions with clients affected by domestic
violence and they observed that financial abuse was very common among such clients. This
and other studies have also identified the following issues for services:
A need for greater acknowledgement of the long-term impacts of violence and the
need for post-crisis support aimed at preventing women returning to violent
relationships and supporting women’s wellbeing in the longer-term (Desmond 2011;
A need for workers supporting women on exit from domestic and family violence to
provide individual ‘economic advocacy’ around women’s debts, savings, assets and
income as a key strategy to assist women increase their financial security following
domestic violence (Barrett Meyering 2012).
A need for economic advocacy at a systemic level, for financial literacy education as
preventative measures and for specialised financial literacy programs from women
affected by violence (Braaf & Barrett Meyering 2011).
A need for training around domestic violence and linkages with domestic violence
and other services including to raise awareness of the economic impacts of domestic
violence on women and to recognise that abuse may continue after separation (Braaf
& Barrett Meyering 2011).
Domestic and family violence services
In the United States context, Christy-McMullin (2011) maintains that domestic violence
services generally focus on mental health, parenting skills and domestic skills and that this
reflects patriarchal society and traditional gender assignments. She argues that emotional
abuse, economic literacy, and wealth and asset building need to be brought to the fore of
service, policy and research practice agendas. This critique does not readily apply to the
Australian context where a strong feminist philosophical underpinning and feminist activism
has driven the establishment of domestic and family violence services (Bullen 2009). There
are also contemporary examples of initiatives directed to building economic capacity
involving the collaboration of domestic and family violence services with other community
services. Further, there is considerable evidence of assistance and individual advocacy
around immediate financial issues provided by domestic violence service workers for their
clients in relation to housing, legal and financial issues. For example, all of the small group of
domestic and family violence service providers in a recent ADFVC study (Braaf & Barrett
Meyering 2011) reported they provided some form of in-house financial counselling,
although only one employed a professional financial counsellor. Notwithstanding this, the
argument has been made by Evans (2007) that there is a need for a greater focus on longterm
security through interventions that address the impacts of domestic and family violence
beyond those relating to immediate crisis and recovery.
Barrett Meyering (2012, p. 1) has argued for ‘economic advocacy’ for women and children
experiencing domestic violence and suggested that the domestic violence sector’s capacity
in this area can be further strengthened by “incorporating economic advocacy into the ‘core
business’ of services; pursuing greater collaboration with the financial counselling sector;
and by better resourcing by funding bodies for this work”.
Housing and accommodation sector
There is a diverse range of community sector providers of crisis and refuge accommodation
although there is also a severe shortage of crisis accommodation (AIHW 2011). There are
also a variety of accommodation and other services that work to assist women with longerterm
accommodation including private rental housing. A scan of published research
suggests there has been a lot of activity around the development of models of housing
assistance for women escaping domestic and family violence in recent years, including a
focus on longer-term housing options, possibly following directions identified in the National
Partnership Agreement. Two examples are outlined here to indicate the diversity of initiatives
and of partnerships.
Harris, Johnson and Bailey (2008) have documented some ‘best practice’ models including a
Family Violence Private Rental Access Program run by the Salvation Army and
HomeGround Services in Victoria. The program assists women who have experienced
family violence to access and/or retain private rental. The service model includes assistance
to secure rental housing, brokerage funds to provide a time limited rental subsidy, housing
related practical information, referral and establishment assistance and regular on-going
contact and housing related assistance for the duration of the brokerage period and liaison
and/or partnerships with landlords, family violence support services, and other community
based resources and organisations including police and courts.
Another program, the BSafe pilot program was a partnership between Victoria Police and the
Women’s Health Goulburn North East which assisted women to stay in their homes by
providing them with personal alarm systems (Taylor & Mackay 2011).
Financial counselling sector
Financial counselling services can assist women to sort out immediate financial problems
resulting from economic abuse and other domestic and family violence while they potentially
also have an important role in addressing women’s disempowerment through supporting
their attainment of financial stability in the longer term.
Financial counselling services are located in a diverse range of community services
organisations. Given this it is likely that considerable diversity exists in relation to financial
counsellors’ awareness and understanding of domestic and family violence issues. While the
sector is moving toward formal professionalisation with the introduction of certification for
financial counsellors, historically this has not been the case and there is no doubt
considerable diversity in areas of expertise reflecting organisational location and other
factors. There is little published research literature concerning financial counselling services
and practices in relation to people experiencing domestic and family violence including
economic abuse. The recent qualitative study by Braaf and Barrett Meyering (2011) cited
some dissatisfaction on the part of specialist domestic and family violence service workers
and women with approaches taken by financial counsellors but it is not apparent from this
study that these are systemic issues or reflect a good understanding of service provision by
financial counsellors. However Braaf and Barrett Meyering’s findings do suggest there may
be a need for better linkages and exchange between domestic and family violence services
and financial counselling sectors.
Community service provision of finance programs
In Australia a diverse range of community services organisations provide multiple services
including material aid and financial assistance while they may also employ financial
counsellors. Some providers of varied services to people on low incomes have expertise and
experience in providing financial education and may also provide a range of financial
products and services.
A scan of web-based references to economic and financial abuse identified a number of
recent community sector initiatives in Australia which specifically respond to economic abuse
issues. Most of these are small or time-limited pilot programs. An exception is the provision
of microfinance targeted specifically to women who have experienced domestic or family
violence. However there are a broader range of general services and programs designed to
build financial capacity for people on low incomes provided by community services
organisations, including microfinance and financial literacy programs.
Microfinance initiatives, along with financial education, are program responses which directly
address issues of women’s financial stability and subjective financial wellbeing. Programs
and services such as no interest and low interest loans can meet immediate needs to
replace household items while giving women some control over their finances and increasing
ability to gain economic independence (Correia 2000; Corrie 2011; Landvogt 2011). Other
microfinance programs are matched savings accounts through which women can build
assets. In Australia there are a small number of such programs operating within the
community sector specifically targeted to women who have experienced domestic and family
violence supported by banks including the National Australia Bank and ANZ Bank and the
Australian Government. Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service, Kildonan UnitingCare and
other agencies provide these services. 14
14 The Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service microfinance program is now provided through Good
Shepherd Microfinance, see ). For Kildonan
UnitingCare see .
Financial education and asset building
The range of community services organisations that have offered financial education
programs is much broader and includes organisations such as neighbourhood houses and
learning centres, CALD community organisations and women’s health services. There are a
variety of mainstream programs for people on low incomes, with the largest of these the
‘MoneyMinded’ program supported by the ANZ Bank and provided by a large number of
community organisations across Australia (Russell, Bailey & Wall 2010). Recent initiatives
targeted to women include Good Shepherd Youth & Family Services’ action research project
on women and financial capability (Landvogt 2008) which produced a DVD and guide for a
community education model for financial education (Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service
There have been a number of programs specifically targeting women who have experienced
domestic and family violence. In 2012 in Victoria the Women’s Information and Referral
Exchange (WIRE) is running workshops for women and training for domestic and family
violence workers and the ‘Tools for Change: Women and financial capability project’
developed by Women’s Health Goulburn North East (WHGNE) is providing training for
mentors to support women who have experienced violence (WHGNE 2012, viewed 19
August, http://www.whealth.com.au/work_tools_for_change.html; WIRE 2012, viewed 13
June 2012, http://www.wire.org.au/). Similar initiatives are apparent in other states; for
example, in South Australia financial literacy training for women who have experienced
violence is currently being provided through Uniting Communities Adelaide East and in New
South Wales the Domestic Violence Support, Western Sydney Service began providing
these types of programs in 2011 (for the Uniting Communities Adelaide East program see
, for Domestic Violence
Support, Western Sydney Service, see , viewed 19 August 2012).
While the immediate requirements of women leaving economic abuse may be quite different
from other women—as they include the separation of finances from ex-partners and the
establishment of independent finances—there is a need for research to identify whether
there are benefits in specifically targeted programs for women leaving domestic violence.
While there is clearly a need for information there are examples of booklets that have been
developed which include lists of documents women should take and the range of possible
matters they need to deal with. For example, WIRE has an information sheet on legal,
financial and housing issues and another on property issues for women leaving relationships
(see WIRE at , viewed 19 June 2012).
Community legal services
There are a number of specialised, mainly government-funded, legal centres based in major
cities that focus on consumer issues and also provide financial counselling. They may also
offer telephone advice services. For example, in New South Wales there is the Consumer
Credit Legal Centre NSW (see ) and, in Victoria, the Consumer
Action Law Centre (). The Consumer Action Law Centre
runs the MoneyHelp service which offers an internet-based financial information service and
a telephone advice line targeted to people experiencing financial difficulty.
Generalist community legal centres deal with both family violence and consumer debt and
other financial issues so it is possible that there is a strong awareness of economic abuse in
this sector as these services may be a first port of call for women leaving domestic violence.
Notably, an early Australian research report on economic abuse (Branigan 2004) was
undertaken by a community legal and financial counselling service.
Conclusion: Community services responses to economic abuse
Key services and programs relating to economic abuse include domestic and family violence
and general services such as financial counselling, legal assistance, accommodation
assistance, material aid and financial education programs. Identified gaps in community
sector responses to economic abuse and assistance for women to gain economic security
following abuse include post-crisis services and services which address issues relating to
the long-term impacts of economic abuse and domestic violence. Some recent initiatives in
the housing and accommodation sector do address longer term issues by supporting women
to gain and remain in rental housing and to remain safely in their homes following violence.
Research has also identified a need for greater support and individual advocacy for women
around financial issues following domestic violence and, in relation to this, there appears to
be a need for training, information exchange and collaboration between different services—
including between financial counselling and domestic violence services. At the same time
there is a considerable lack of knowledge about levels of understanding of economic abuse
and responses to it in different community service sectors. This is also the case in regard to
how collaborations may be occurring between individual workers or services in different
sectors and about models of co-location of services or of holistic case management which
might be providing effective responses.
There have been a variety of community sector responses which have provided financial
literacy education and financial capability building as both preventative measures and for
women who have experienced violence. While microfinance initiatives are now offered on an
extensive basis with some programs specifically designed for women who have experienced
domestic violence, other initiatives in this area have been on a small scale. There is a need
for a better understanding of the appropriate contexts for providing financial literacy
education to women experiencing economic abuse including the potential for ‘mainstream’
community-based education programs to fill this role.
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APPENDIX A: Key policy details
Excerpts from: The national plan to reduce violence against women and their
children, 2010-2022 (COAG, 2010)
The vision of the National Plan is that ’Australian women and their children live free from
violence in safe communities.’
To measure the success of this vision, governments have set a target for 'a significant and
sustained reduction in violence against women and their children,' during the 12 years from
2010 to 2022.
To know whether this target is being achieved, the following four high‐level indicators of
change will be used to show progress:
Reduced prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Increased proportion of women who feel safe in their communities.
Reduced deaths related to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Reduced proportion of children exposed to their mother’s or carer’s experience of
The National Plan includes six national outcomes (measures of success in brackets):
Communities are safe and free from violence* (success will be measured by an
increase in the community’s intolerance of violence against women) [*includes
strategy ‘Advance gender equality’].
Relationships are respectful (success will be measured by improved knowledge of,
and the skills and behaviour for, respectful relationships by young people).
Indigenous communities are strengthened (success will be measured by reduction in
the proportion of Indigenous women who consider that family violence, assault and
sexual assault are problems for their communities and neighbourhoods; and increase
in the proportion of Indigenous women who are able to have their say within their
communities on important issues, including violence).
Services meet the needs of women and their children experiencing violence
(Success will be measured by an increase in the access to, and responsiveness of,
services for victims of domestic and family violence and sexual assault)
Justice responses are effective. (Success will be measured by an increase in the rate
of women reporting domestic violence and sexual assault)
Perpetrators stop their violence and are held to account (Success will be measured
by a decrease in repeated partner victimisation).
ALRC (2011c) recommendations for changes to Child Support Agency practices to
address family violence
12—1 The Child Support Guide should provide that the Child Support Agency should identify
family violence-related safety concerns through screening, ‘risk identification’ or other
methods, when a payee:
(a) requests or elects to end a child support assessment; or
(b) elects to end Child Support Agency collection of child support and/or arrears.
12—2 The Child Support Guide should provide that the Child Support Agency should refer a
payee who has disclosed family violence, including a payee who receives no, or no more
than, the base rate of Family Tax Benefit Part A, to a Centrelink social worker or expert
service provider when he or she:
(a) requests or elects to end a child support assessment;
(b) elects to end Child Support Agency collection of child support; or
(c) requests that the Child Support Agency terminate, or not commence, enforcement
action or departure prohibition orders.
12—3 The Child Support Guide should provide that the Child Support Agency should contact
a customer to identify family violence-related safety concerns through screening, ‘risk
identification’ or other methods, prior to initiating significant action against the other party,
(a) change of assessments (‘departure determinations’ under the Child Support
(Assessment) Act 1989 (Cth));
(b) court actions to recover child support debt; and
(c) departure prohibition orders.
12—4 The Child Support Guide should provide that, where a customer has disclosed family
violence, the Child Support Agency should consult with the customer regarding his or her
safety concerns, prior to initiating significant action against the other party, including:
(a) change of assessments (‘departure determinations’ under the Child Support
(Assessment) Act 1989 (Cth));
(b) court actions to recover child support debt; and 20 Family Violence and
Commonwealth Laws—Improving Legal Frameworks
(c) departure prohibition orders.
12—5 The Child Support Guide should provide that the Child Support Agency should identify
family violence-related safety concerns through screening, ‘risk identification’ or other
methods, prior to requiring a payee to collect privately pursuant to s 38B of the Child Support
(Registration and Collection) Act 1988 (Cth).
APPENDIX B: Economic abuse in the Victorian Family Violence Protection Act 2008
Section 6 of the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) provides the following meaning of
6. Meaning of economic abuse
For the purposes of this Act, economic abuse is behaviour by a person (the first person)
that is coercive, deceptive or unreasonably controls another person (the second person),
without the second person's consent—
(a) in a way that denies the second person the economic or financial autonomy the
second person would have had but for that behaviour; or
(b) by withholding or threatening to withhold the financial support necessary for
meeting the reasonable living expenses of the second person or the second person's
child, if the second person is entirely or predominantly dependent on the first person
for financial support to meet those living expenses.
coercing a person to relinquish control over assets and income;
removing or keeping a family member's property without permission, or
threatening to do so;
disposing of property owned by a person, or owned jointly with a person, against
the person's wishes and without lawful excuse;
without lawful excuse, preventing a person from having access to joint financial
assets for the purposes of meeting normal household expenses;
preventing a person from seeking or keeping employment;
coercing a person to claim social security payments;
coercing a person to sign a power of attorney that would enable the person's
finances to be managed by another person;
coercing a person to sign a contract for the purchase of goods or services;
coercing a person to sign a contract for the provision of finance, a loan or credit;
coercing a person to sign a contract of guarantee;
coercing a person to sign any legal document for the establishment or operation
of a business.