What you need to know about women’s economic abuse

Economic abuse cuts across cultural, age and socio-economic boundaries. But Australia still has a long way to go in understanding the complexity and depth of the problem, particularly for women.

A panel of experts delivered an online masterclass today to MBA students at the University of Sydney Business School about the issue.

Both Rebecca Glenn (Founder of the Centre for Women’s Economic Safety ) and Bianca Hartge-Hazelman (CEO of Financy ) agree that Australia is only just starting to comprehend how economic abuse impacts women, their families and society.

"It can be highly individual. There’s going to be multiple considerations that impact people differently, for example, someone who’s welfare dependent is going to have a very different experience to someone who has permanent work with a big employer," explained Ms Glenn.

"But it happens in all populations, it can happen to anyone."

Economic abuse is a form of intimate partner and family violence that involves controlling a person’s access and ability to acquire, use or maintain economic resources. This puts a person’s economic safety at risk, which is essential to wellbeing.

I was getting really frustrated and nothing was really changing. I wanted to do more to change my daughters’ futures.

Pinpointing early warning signs and seeing the spectrum on which this can happen is difficult.

One of the most accurate depictions in popular culture recently is seen in Netflix’s Maid, as it follows 28-year-old Alex who leaves an abusive relationship to protect her young daughter.

"If you want to understand the multiple intersecting ways that economic safety is undermined first by an abusive partner and then by structural barriers and system failures, it is brilliant," said Ms Glenn.

"While the welfare network in the US differs to Australia’s, it shows the undignified way systems place the burden for experiencing violence and abuse on victims rather than perpetrators, and fail to adequately support people to start again when they leave an abusive partner."

The lifetime prevalence of economic abuse of women is almost double that of men, according to analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data conducted by RMIT University ; 15.7 percent of women in all age groups compared to men.

"The long-term consequences of economic abuse can be severe, whether it’s dwindling retirement savings or overall confidence," Bianca Hartge-Hazelman said.

"This can become a cycle of fear and repetition. You can take the first step out of an abusive relationship, only to be too fearful to take the next one and end up where you started or worse."

After a long career as a financial journalist, Ms Hartge-Hazelman became concerned seeing the slow rate of change in data like the gender pay gap.

"I was getting really frustrated and nothing was really changing. I wanted to do more to change my daughters’ futures," she said.

She founded Financy six years ago and launched the Women’s Index. Released quarterly, it measures and tracks financial progress and economic equality.

"We’re seeing that the pace of change is slowing, and the timeframes are volatile. As it stands, the timeframe to achieving equality in unpaid work is 101 years.

"We need a greater amount of focus and awareness-raising of how issues like the gender pay gap and socio-economic disadvantage can deepen economic insecurity," Ms Hartge-Hazelman said.

Similarly, Ms Glenn said the path to guaranteed economic safety has to start with structural changes.

"We won’t move the dial until we stop seeing childcare as a luxury. After all, it’s good for society, it’s good for women and it’s good for the economy. Universal access to early childhood education is essential for women’s economic security," she explained.

"Women who are trying to rebuild and escape an abusive relationship - including economic abuse - need support. Yet there’s no mention of ’economic abuse’ in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children. This has to change."

A first-of-its-kind study examining the economic security of single older women without children has busted the myth that people without children must have uninterrupted careers and healthy retirement savings.

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