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The hidden cost of domestic abuse

10:00am February 05 2024

One of the less visible forms of domestic abuse is financial, yet it can be just as devastating in its emotional impact. 

Mary* had been subject to all aspects of domestic abuse during a seven-year relationship with her partner, but it was only after she left him that he targeted her finances, emptying their joint bank account within a matter of weeks. 

“I don’t think anybody would look at me and think she’s going to be a victim of domestic violence and especially financial abuse,” Mary says. “I’ve got over 20 years experience in the financial services industry. I was the primary breadwinner. I managed all our household money and expenses, yet it still happened to me.”

Mary is far from alone in her experience, with 4.2 million Australians, or 21 per cent of the population, having experienced partner violence or abuse since the age of 15, according to a study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics published in November.  

The study also found that 16 per cent of women, and nearly 8 per cent of men, had experienced partner economic abuse. 

“Financial abuse can mean a range of things - everything from controlling someone’s money right through to controlling the decisions they make and the freedom that they have with that money,” says Kate Fowler, Westpac’s Head of Customer and Business Assist. 

Behaviours that characterise economic abuse were defined in the ABS study as including the manipulation, control, isolation and intimidation of the person they are aimed at and are often repeated.  

Faced with an uncertain future, Mary turned to Westpac for support with her finances. 

“For the first time I thought I’m not alone. We started to discuss my options straight away, which gave me real peace of mind,” she says. “I was having almost daily phone calls with the team. Just to have the backing and feel that I wasn’t alone meant the world to me, especially in those first few months.

Mary’s advice to anyone going through a similar situation is to seek support. “Have a plan for how you’re going to escape and how you’re going to set yourself up.” 

Of course, it’s not always easy to leave an abusive relationship, and in some cases it can be dangerous. Westpac’s Customer and Business Assist team recommends that anyone thinking of leaving a relationship make sure they have a safety plan in place. 

More resources, including a safety planning checklist, are available from the national domestic, family and sexual violence counselling service 1800 Respect.

It took 18 months before Mary finally began to get her life back on track. But now she’s thriving again and has bought her own place. 

“The fact that I’ve been able to set myself up now for the future and gain that financial security is amazing,” she says. “I never thought that I would be where I am in those early days when I was on the phone every single day to the bankers trying to sort things out. But things do turn around.”

*Mary’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

This article relates to family and domestic violence. If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence and need help, contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) to talk to a counsellor. If you are in immediate danger, call 000. If you need support with your finances, reach out to your financial institution. 

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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