The annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign runs globally from 25 November to 10 December. The campaign focuses on creating awareness of the various forms of violence perpetrated against women and children, including physical, emotional, psychological and financial.

In this post, we’ll be focusing on the financial aspect of abuse, and how this erodes the basic human need for security. Lianne Lutz and Kerri Lutz of Women’s Wealth explain what financial abuse is, and how women can become empowered to overcome it.

‘Financial mistreatment is a subtle form of violence and abuse. It is difficult to see it from the outside as the damage here is one of deprivation rather than physical injury. This is disempowering, making victims insecure and bereft of any sense of safety,’ says Lianne. Oftentimes, the victim in this situation is totally dependent on the abuser for food, clothing and the roof over their head.

What constitutes Financial Abuse

‘Financial abuse occurs when the abuser prevents their partner from having financial independence. The victim is often not allowed to work and has no access to any money other than that given to them by the abusive partner. In this situation, the abusive partner often assumes a position of control over the victim’s activities, even controlling their access to a bank account.

‘Victims often feel disempowered, unable to escape this abusive relationship because of their total dependence on their partner.  This becomes further heightened if there are children involved. Victims can become trapped in a situation of poverty and dependence, often resulting in physical health and psychological problems, accompanied by a lack of confidence, and feelings of shame and isolation,’ says Kerri.

Abusers may exclude their partner from financial decisions while maintaining control over every cent. This can be exacerbated by an abusive partner accumulating a large amount of debt, and using the victim’s name for all household accounts and even credit or store cards.

The starting point to becoming empowered in a financially abusive situation:

1. Seek help

Family and friends can be a source of help during this time, giving or lending the victim money until they are back on their feet. Organisations such as POWA and Lifeline can provide professional advice on legal rights and protection. There is also the Stop Gender Violence Helpline, providing a service that can be accessed without costs from any cellphone by dialling *120*7867# 

2. Know your financial situation

‘When you start to rebuild your finances, you need to know exactly what you are dealing with in terms of your debt,’ explains Lianne who emphasises the importance of obtaining a credit report. South Africans are entitled to one free credit report from every credit bureau in the country per year.

‘You need to know about all outstanding debt in your name, especially if haven’t had any control of your finances. This can affect many areas including renting, taking out a car loan or other forms of obtaining credit. No matter what the situation may be, you can only deal with it and find a solution once you know what it actually is,’ she says.

Companies where money is owed can be contacted in order to implement repayment strategies to slowly remove any debt.

‘Begin the repayment process by paying extra into your largest interest debt account, while paying off any other accounts at their set premium. Once you have totally cleared your first debt, then start allocating these funds to your next largest interest-bearing account, working through each account in this way until all debt is repaid,’ says Kerri.

3. Start to set boundaries and protect yourself

‘Boundaries need to be set in key areas. Start with establishing new financial parameters for yourself in order to budget and spend within your means,’ advises Lianne.

Victims also need to take steps to safeguard their identity to prevent the abusive partner from creating new credit using their details. This means contacting relevant places such as banks and any other places to which your partner may have access. Protect yourself by creating a boundary to prevent access, and changing your security questions so that your name cannot be used by your partner to buy anything or create any further debt in your name.

4. Start rebuilding your finances and your life

‘This is a difficult time and there are many aspects of your life which may need rebuilding. Your confidence needs to be repaired as much as your credit score. In fact, the more financially secure you become, the more empowered you will start to feel.’

How to rebuild your credit score:

  • Ensure that you pay the full instalment owing on each account, on time, every month.
  • If you have any extra money, pay it towards the account with the highest interest rate.
  • Keep track of your debt at all times – ignoring it will not make it go away.
  • A very effective way of getting your debts under control is to keep the total utilisation of your current credit facilities to less than 35% of the limit. For example: If you have a credit card/store account with a limit of R1000, try to keep the amount owing at R350 or less.
  • Do a check of your own credit report and see if there is any negative information on it (for example ‘blacklisted’ or ‘slow payer’) that should be rectified.
  • Maintain a healthy mix of credit. For example, a credit card, cellphone contract and home loans. This variety will give you a good credit score.

How to rebuild your savings:

  • Start by consulting a financial adviser who can assist you free of charge.
  • Get rid of your debt – you cannot start saving until you get rid of your debt.
  • Set up your financial goals (short-term, medium-term and long-term).
  • There are different savings vehicles to help you reach your goals in the most effective way.

Empower yourself and your future

Healing emotionally and financially takes time and work. Keep in mind that if you enter any future relationships, you can maintain financial independence and not relinquish control to your partner. Early on, negotiate a split of resources and financial responsibilities that satisfies and respects both of your needs.

While you can combine your resources for certain things, it is advisable to also have your own separate accounts.

‘Although women have come a long way in terms of their rights and opportunities, there are still instances of gender inequality in the home and in the workplace in South Africa and the world over,’ says Kerri. ‘Women may be highly qualified but there is often still a perception that it is the man’s prerogative to organise the finances and policies in the home. Financial independence is a goal worth striving for. It is empowering and, most importantly, it brings peace of mind and security.’