By Supriya Singh
Published by Routledge
Supriya Singh tells the stories of 12 Anglo-Celtic and Indian women in Australia who survived economic abuse. She describes the lived experience of coercive control underlying economic abuse across cultures.
Each story shows how the woman was trapped and lost her freedom because her husband denied her money, appropriated her assets and sabotaged her ability to be in paid work. These stories are about silence, shame and embarrassment that this could happen despite professional and graduate education. Some of the women were the main earners in their household. Women spoke of being afraid, of trying to leave, of losing their sense of self. Many suffered physical and mental ill-health, not knowing what would trigger the violence. Some attempted suicide. None of the women fully realised they were suffering family violence through economic abuse, whilst it was happening to them.
The stories of Anglo-Celtic and Indian women show economic abuse is not associated with a specific system of money management and control. It is when the morality of money is betrayed that control becomes coercive. Money as a medium of care then becomes a medium of abuse.
The women’s stories demonstrate the importance of talking about money and relationships with future partners, across life stages and with their sons and daughters. The women saw this as an essential step for preventing and lessening economic abuse.
A vital read for scholars of domestic abuse and family violence that will also be valuable for sociologists of money.
Table of Contents
1 Introduction: Economic abuse is the untold story of family violence
2 Carol: The joint account becomes a medium of abuse
3 Ekta: The ‘good son’ sends her money to his parents
4 Rina: Dowry is economic, emotional and physical abuse
5 Geeta: He gave me coins, not notes
6 Karen: ‘I’ve been a single mother for most of my married life’
7 Asha: ‘You now belong to my family and your money is mine’
8 Chitra: He and his family abused her for she did not behave ‘like a good wife’
9 Prema: He married her to get permanent residence
10 Betty: After he died she recognised it as economic abuse
11 Heer: She knew she should leave but was in a silent ‘cultural bind’
12 Bala: A story of torture, survival and empowerment
13 Enid: Talking of money
This chapter sets the research and policy context for the stories of twelve Anglo-Celtic and Indian women in Australia who survived economic abuse. It describes the gendered nature of economic abuse and coercive control. Economic abuse occurs predominantly when a man controls a woman’s money, appropriates her assets, and sabotages her ability to be in paid work. It involves coercive control, a malevolent pattern of behaviour where the man isolates, entraps, and assails the woman’s human rights. This behaviour is not criminalised in most of Australia, adding to the silence around economic abuse. This chapter draws on the sociology of money to explore how the gender and morality of money shape the medium of economic abuse. The moral norms around money in the family are entwined with gender, parental and conjugal norms, household and family structure, religion, and law. The women’s stories in this book reflect the continuities and differences of economic abuse across cultures and generations.
Carol’s story reveals how money as a medium of care can become a medium of abuse. She expected money in her marriage would be shared, and so put her savings and earnings in the joint account. But the joint account in her second marriage was not accompanied by the morality of marriage as a partnership and so became a medium of economic abuse. Coercive control started with grooming, that is, courtship, fear of physical assault, emotional abuse and isolation from her friends and family interstate. This was followed by coercive behaviour where her husband denied her access to money though she was the main earner. He sold her belongings. She was afraid to spend. She felt she was losing herself, her freedom, and her mind. Carol left within two and a half years of this marriage. Though she lost more than half the house her money had bought, Carol was fortunate in her education, her continued work as an experienced teacher, the support of her faith leaders and family and friends who stood by her.
Ekta’s story shows how remittances that are usually seen as a filial act can become a medium of economic and emotional abuse for the wife. Her husband was a ‘good son,’ but he had not fulfilled his complementary moral obligation of looking after the wellbeing of his wife and daughter. Ekta was the main earner. Her husband had married her to get Permanent Residence. He sent all his earnings and some of hers, without consultation, to India to his parents to build a luxurious house. Remittances to India denied Ekta and her daughter, money for essential expenses. He had appropriated her money. She had to work at three jobs to make ends meet. When Ekta left with her daughter within three years of marriage, she found her husband had emptied their joint account. She did not recognise it as economic abuse. Ekta survived because of her education, employment and support from her work colleagues, friends, neighbours, and family.
Rina’s story tells how dowry abuse was the beginning of coercive control with a pattern of economic, emotional and physical abuse. Her husband abused her economically by denying her money. His family kept her jewellery in her father-in-law’s bank locker in India. He pressured her to find paid work, but she had lost confidence in herself and was not called for a single interview despite her managerial work experience in India. Migration for marriage meant she had no close family or friends around her in Australia. Her husband periodically took away her mobile phone, deleted her contacts to further isolate her to exercise coercive control. Her husband and his family abused her emotionally, heaping abuse on her family, the inadequacy of the dowry, falsely accusing her of sexual relationships and her upbringing. He began to abuse her physically within the first three months of their marriage. Her marriage was over within a year. Rina’s family in India supported her emotionally and financially. Through her mother’s cousin in Australia, she was able to use family violence services for survivors. She is now divorced, has permanent residence, and continues to live in Australia. She interviewed for five jobs and got each one of them.
Geeta’s story of marriage and migration tells of coercive control through isolation, fear, entrapment, and deprivation of freedom. She suffered physical, economic, and emotional abuse. Her husband denied her money and access to her own bank account. He smashed her mobile phone preventing her from communicating with her family in India, intercepted her letters and cut up the clothes her family sent. He locked up her passport and Medicare card. He beat her and their children, threatening her with a rod and a knife. The marriage ended after 10 years, leaving her wondering whether she was to blame for the end of her marriage. She is struggling to survive.
Karen’s story reveals the difficulty of negotiating the different moralities of money that come to the fore across life stages. The joint account at the beginning of her marriage set up the expectation of partnership in marriage. Yet Karen’s choice to leave paid work when her first child was born, fitted the earlier dominant morality that the husband was the provider. These cultural norms were strong enough for her to not consider her husband’s suggestion they change roles, so that she could provide while he looked after the home and children. When her husband did not provide, Karen led a life of privation, struggling to get paid work and look after the home and children. It was only after the end of her 20-year marriage, she recognised she had suffered economic abuse accompanied by emotional and physical abuse. She survived through a slow process of re-skilling and further education, supported by a small inheritance and friends.
Asha and her husband had different ideas of the gender and morality of money in marriage. Asha did not want the traditional male control of money but aimed for a mix of joint and independent management and control of money in marriage. She wanted to be a ‘good daughter’ as well as a partner in marriage. Her story is also about the difficulties of talking about money with a prospective partner to negotiate the balance of ‘my money,’ ‘your money,’ and ‘our money’. She was the main earner and had talked to her future partner of how she would like to deal with money in marriage. Her husband did not hear her. After marriage, he continued to subscribe to the traditional maleness of money. Suffering economic, emotional, and physical abuse, she realised her husband wanted control over her. She got out of her marriage within two years. She flourished after her divorce as she had a global education, progressed in her employment, exercised her choices, and was bolstered by the approval and support of her family.
Chitra’s story illustrates the contours of economic abuse in an Indian joint family. Her husband and his family coerced and controlled her through economic, emotional. and physical abuse. She lost her sense of self. She feared for her life and freedom. Her husband and his family threatened they would have her deported as she was only on a spouse visa. The abuse was along gendered lines and presented as her fault for she was not ‘a good wife.’ The family sabotaged her initial attempts to qualify so she could continue her work as a health professional. Her husband appropriated money in their joint account and involved her in ‘coerced debt’ through loans and a directorship in the family business. Her jewellery was kept in her brother-in-law’s bank locker and not returned. She fled, fearing she would be killed. As she had a spouse visa, she was able to use family violence services. These services together with continuous employment and family support helped her survive precariously. The road ahead remains challenging.
Prema, 36, migrated to Australia to get away from the violence she had seen in her family. Though she was the main earner in her marital household and the one with permanent residence (PR), she suffered horrific physical, emotional, reproductive, and economic abuse. When her husband received $200,000 as compensation for an accident, he took all the money to his family in India, using remittances as a medium of abuse. He took away her jewellery. She had four abortions as his family wanted a son after her daughter was born. He poured drain cleaner down her throat leaving her with physical and mental ill health. Her husband was never called to account. Through his marriage he got his PR and citizenship. He then divorced Prema, married again and has a child. At the time of the interview, the financial settlement still had to be finalised. He was asking for half the house she paid for. With the help of support services, Prema is dealing with the trauma of family violence. She is reframing her earlier self-blame to be a positive role model for her daughter.
Betty, 66, earned less than half her husband’s salary but paid for the three children’s Catholic school education, the mortgage and the household expenses from her salary alone. She had a separate account, but her husband did not keep to her moral expectation that he would provide. His failure to provide, led to her physical and mental ill-health. She was brittle with stress and attempted suicide three times. Her husband said, she was obsessive about money. She tried to leave many times but had nowhere to go. Betty and her children still do not know what her husband did with his money, for he died with debts. She had grown up prudent with money but did not know how he grew up with money. Eighteen months after he died, she discovered she had suffered economic abuse during her marriage. It was a relief to know. With the support of family, she now lives a life with more choices than before.
Migration to Australia from India changed the gender of money for Heer, 60 years of age. She became the main earner but kept behaving as if her husband was in control, and the money she earned, belonged to his family. Despite this subterfuge, her husband abused her physically, emotionally, and economically for 25 years, but nobody talked about it. Her father-in-law and mother-in-law lived with them but were unable to stop the abuse. It took Heer a while to realise she was suffering family violence, but she remained silent. She tried to leave more than once but came back for she found it culturally difficult to leave. There were also few support services before 1995. She finally left when her children threatened to leave if she did not. She and her children now talk about family violence. She says, not being able to talk of the violence is an abuse itself. She also talks of it openly with others to break the silence around family violence. She now helps women who are going through the same problems.
Bala’s story is one of coercive control in her first marriage. Her husband wanted to ‘hurt and torture her’ through emotional and economic abuse. She was away from family and friends for early in their marriage they migrated from India to Africa. Trusting her husband, she put her earnings as a teacher in her husband’s account. He did not fulfil the morality of money in marriage as a husband and father. He used her earnings, controlled her expenditure, did not pay for their daughter’s education, denied her money for groceries, and tried to sabotage her career. Bala took charge of her own earnings after two years but hid the cruelty and torture she experienced. The emotional abuse was on gendered lines. He accused her of not knowing how to keep house, of not being attractive as a woman. Her husband abandoned Bala and their daughter after seven years in Africa. She returned to India and survived for she had education, employment and the support of family and friends. She married again. In Australia, she and her husband help address and prevent family violence in the community. She shares part of her story with women, to give them hope that they too will survive.
Enid, 57, managed and controlled the household money in her first marriage and was the main earner. Yet she suffered economic abuse as her husband spent, but did not provide. Her partner in a subsequent relationship sought to appropriate her assets after separation. When she married again, she knew she did not want to be subservient with money. She and her second husband periodically discuss their needs and adjust how they deal with the balance of personal and joint money. Though Enid’s story of money and marriage had changed, her daughter faced financial dependence after she had a child. Enid realised her daughter had put herself last just as Enid used to do when they were growing up. In their family they had talked of managing and saving money prudently and of the importance of transparency in money. But they had not talked of the way money changes across life stage in intimate relationships. She then talked to her daughter of the importance of negotiating the balance between personal and joint money with her husband across life stage with a sense of ‘unconditional mutual regard.’
The lived experience of the twelve Anglo-Celtic and Indian women show economic abuse is not associated with a specific system of money management and control. It is when the morality of money is betrayed that control becomes coercive. Money as a medium of care then becomes a medium of abuse. Their stories show that to survive economic abuse, it is best to leave fast, be educated and employed, have support from family, friends, and service providers. The women also learnt to talk of money and family violence, hoping this would prevent and address economic abuse. This chapter introduces the concept of the ‘relational literacy of money.’ It involves communicating and listening to your partner about each other’s experience of money, negotiating joint and personal money at each life stage, and sharing these insights with your children. The chapter ends with proposals for policy makers and practitioners. It argues for the criminalisation of coercive control so that society recognises economic abuse as a crime. The training of legal personnel and practitioners should include an understanding of the gender and morality of money. Major social change can happen when we learn the relational literacy of money from each other, within and across cultures.
Supriya Singh is a sociologist of money, migration and family. She is Honorary Professor at the Graduate School of Business and Law, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University.
Blending deep empathy with sociological insight, Supriya Singh offers a pathbreaking account of domestic financial abuse. As public visibility of physical violence against women has increased, Singh reveals the equally devastating effects of economic violence. Drawing from poignant interviews, the book’s discoveries will instruct social scientists, inform policy makers, and engage all readers concerned with understanding families, money, and love.
Viviana A. Zelizer is the Lloyd Cotsen ’50 Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. She is the author of Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy.
See Supriya Singh’s Tedx Talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id6kPfzHVr8
- Supriya Singh (2020). Economic Abuse and Family Violence Across Cultures: Gendering Money and Assets Through Coercive Control. In Marilyn McMahon and Paul McGorrery (Eds.) Criminalising Coercive Control: Family Violence and the Criminal Law. Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd.
- Supriya Singh (2020). The Gender and Morality of Money in the Indian Transnational Family. In Lan Anh Hoang and Cheryll Alipio (Eds.) Money and Moralities in Contemporary Asia. Amsterdam University Press.
- Singh, Supriya; Sidhu, Jasvinder (2020). Coercive Control of Money, Dowry and Remittances among Indian Migrant Women in Australia, South Asian Diaspora, 12(1), 35-50.
- Singh, Supriya (2019). “The daughter-in-law questions remittances: Changes in the gender of remittances among Indian migrants to Australia.” Global Networks, 19(2), 197-217.