The Hidden Problem: Economic Abuse in Young People

By Isadora Bogle | @isadorabogle

Image by Cait Speldewinde

Picture yourself having an argument with your partner over money.

Your boyfriend never brings his wallet, and you end up paying for everything. Or, he offers to take care of all your banking, but ends up controlling your account.

Say you break up, but your ex is still causing you problems.

Maybe you bought a phone for your partner, but you’re still paying for it. Maybe when he left, he smashed up the house, but your name is on the lease and you have to pay for the damage.

You probably don’t think of those examples as domestic violence, but that’s exactly what they are. Defined as economic abuse, it occurs when someone controls your access to your money, assets, or your capacity to acquire assets, in order to control you.

Recent RMIT research analysing Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data has found 15.7% of women and 7.1% of men had experienced economic abuse in their lifetimes. As with other forms of domestic violence, women are more likely to experience economic abuse than men, though it ultimately doesn’t discriminate.

CEO of WIRE, a support network for women, Julie Kun says “it’s young women, it’s people in same sex relationships, it can happen to young men, it could happen to anyone.”

Your ability to acquire assets is affected by both your study and work arrangements, as well as your credit rating. Lead RMIT researcher in economics, finance, and marketing, Jozica Kutin, says a partner might suggest you stop working or studying as they will “look after you.”

That then could put you in a more vulnerable situation, where you may have less economic power in future. The element of control is particularly significant when identifying economic abuse.

“It doesn’t mean that just because someone is looking after everything that it’s abusive. It’s abusive when you’ve got no voice, when you can’t question – when you are actually too scared to question,” Kutin says.

The issue of economic abuse is a hidden one, as many victims don’t equate it with domestic violence. Therefore, researchers suspect that it is underreported. Kutin explains.

“People recognise that something is wrong, they recognise that they’re being exploited, but what they may not do is see it as family violence.”

James Tresise, from RMIT’s Student Legal Service, agrees. He says students, international students in particular fall victim to this issue.

“Sometimes know that something is wrong. They’re sometimes upset about it, but they don’t think to themselves ‘this is violence, this is something a lawyer can help me with, something that is not put up with in Victoria.’”

The research revealed the risk of experiencing economic abuse peaked between the ages of 40 and 49, where 20.9% of women and 10.3% of men have experienced it. The rates are far lower for 18 to 29 year olds, with only 9.7% of women and 4.6% of men reporting it.  This is likely to be an underestimate however, as the statistics didn’t include defacto relationships. It also excluded people who are in a relationship but not yet living together.

This distinction in the data is also found in the way people identify economic abuse when seeking help. Kun explains, “a lot of young women don’t come forward, maybe because they don’t see it as financially abusive if they’re not living together or something like that, but there can still be financial abuse there when you’re not living together.”

Similarly, Tresise feels students sometimes view their own relationships as less important or legitimate because they aren’t married, and therefore they don’t identify the problems they are experiencing as economic abuse.

Kutin’s current research is now focusing on 18-29 year olds, to try and better understand the issue experienced by a younger demographic. Kutin says young people may be more vulnerable than older people as they are in the process of becoming financially independent, and may not completely understand their financial rights and responsibilities.

While young people start negotiating this financial system, they’re likely to also begin developing long-term relationships.

“We find one of the issues is that what makes young people a bit vulnerable is housing. Everything is so expensive. So, you slide into a relationship, and you go ‘oh yeah, let’s live together – it’ll be cheaper!’ But that also puts you at risk of a situation of dependence,” Kutin says.

So what should you do if you want to know more about economic abuse? WIRE’s Women Talk Money website outlines the sorts of financial issues you should be aware of when in a relationship. Kun says WIRE is trying to inform women of any potential dangers.

“It’s easier to get out of the relationship the earlier it is. We’re really keen (to let people know) that when they can identify those red flags, they can go ‘ok, it’s time to get out.’”

WIRE’s Women Talk Money website

For support and information about economic abuse and other forms of family violence contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

If you are aged 18 to 29 years and would like to tell your story of economic abuse for an RMIT research project, contact [email protected].

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