Understanding economic abuse from a domestic violence perspective

August 1st, 2022

Economic abuse is seldom spoken about, yet it is a very endemic issue experienced by many survivors of domestic violence. The popular misconception that domestic violence only entails physical assault is supported by the fact that courts wrongly address only the physical elements of assault under the umbrella of domestic violence. Unfortunately, this silent, and just as dangerous form of violence, is often seen as a less serious form of abuse in that only the physical assault element of domestic violence is addressed and recognised. This can be attributed to a lack of knowledge from court staff, overworked staff and even societal pressures and influences.

The Domestic Violence Amendment Act 14 of 2021 (the Act) recognises economic abuse as the deprivation of economic or financial resources to which an abused is legally entitled to or which the abused requires out of necessity. According to the definition in the Act, this could include tuition expenses, household necessities for the abused, repayments of a mortgage bond or payment of where the abused and abuser share a residence or accommodation. It is, furthermore considered, abuse where the abuser disposes of household goods or other property of the abused without their consent or the use of the financial resources of the abused without their consent.

The definition extends to the coercion of the abused to relinquish control over their possessions in favour of the abuser or to sign any legal document that would authorise the abuser to manage or control the financial affairs of the victim or abused.

Coercive and controlling behaviour is the core of most economic abuse and it addresses a gendered pattern of behaviour with the intention to make a person subservient and dependent through isolation, manipulation, constant fear, intimidation (also recognised as an act of domestic violence) and to take away the inherent freedom and human rights that the victim or abused might have. According to Evan Stark these coercive tactics affect dominance by the abuser in three ways: ‘Exploiting a partner’s capacities and resources for personal gain and gratification, depriving her of the means needed for autonomy or escape, and regulating her behaviour to conform with stereotypic gender roles’ (E Stark Coercive Control: The Entrapment of Women in Personal Life (New York: Oxford University Press 2007)).

Since these ‘silent’ forms of domestic abuse are mostly unnoticeable and under the radar for the untrained eye, the scars of such abuse lingers for much longer periods than physical abuse.

Very little local research has been found with regard to economic abuse, which is concerning as the United Nation (UN) General Assembly’s Resolution on the ‘Elimination of Domestic Violence against Women’ (A/RES/58/147) concedes that ‘domestic violence can include economic deprivation’. The UN Secretary-General’s ‘In-depth study on all forms of violence against women’ (A/61/122/Add.1) asserts that economic abuse and exploitation are expressions of violence ‘that require greater visibility and attention’.

Victims of economic abuse all over South Africa (SA) experience financial dependency that is fuelled by them being denied access to their bank accounts, being excluded in marital decisions regarding finances that directly impacts the family and not having enough money to buy necessities or to pay bills. In many instances victims are forced to report on every cent spent, to co-sign and be accountable for debts of an abusive partner. One of the most prominent forms of economic abuse is where the abuser can control not only the abused, but also additional people such as dependants of the abused. This is often seen in matters of arrear children maintenance where the abuser not only abuses their spouse but in effect their children as well.

Apart from economic abuse, the Act recognises controlling behaviour as a form of domestic abuse where such behaviour has the effect of making the victim or abused dependent on or subservient to the abuser by ‘isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour’ (UK Says No More ‘Coercive and controlling behaviour’ (https://uksaysnomore.org, accessed 8-7-2022)).

Such controlling behaviour will have a long-term negative impact on the ability of the abused to leave their abuser as the cycle of abuse will get worse with ongoing and renewed secondary emotionally and psychological exploitation of the abused the longer, they stay in the relationship. It is not uncommon for such victims to display physical symptoms of stress, anxiety and malnutrition in an effort to cope with their abuse.

The realisation that the abuse, especially financial abuse, may not stop after such an abused person leaves an abusive relationship is a further contributing factor for many abused people to stay in an abusive relationship.

Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs indicates that there are three recognisable factors, which may adversely impact on a victim or abused person’s economic well-being. This includes, but is not limited to: ‘Using male privilege to exploit women’s existing economic disadvantage; causing woman to incur costs as a result of domestic violence; and using economic abuse to deliberately threaten women’s economic security’ (Nicola Sharp-Jeffs ‘What’s yours is mine: The different forms of economic abuse and its impact on women and children experiencing domestic violence’ (MA thesis, London Metropolitan University, 2008) (www.refuge.org.uk, accessed 8-7-2022).

In SA, economic abuse is experienced mostly by women in disparaging domestic relationships and does not differentiate by upbringing, religion or income group. However, women in poorer communities are more vulnerable when it comes to economic exploitation due to cultural and traditional values.

The Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 does not clearly distinguish between economic and financial abuse and these terms are mostly used interchangeable. Dr Sharp-Jeffs defines these two notions and states that economic abuse addresses the behaviour of the abuser over the victim’s economic freedom, such as restricting of access to money or necessary resources such as clothing and food and even denying the abused partner education or work, whereas financial abuse can be interpreted as a subcategory of economic abuse where the abuser uses money in order to limit and control an abused partner’s present and future actions. This occurs when the abuser uses the money or bank cards of the abused, gambles with the money of the abused or spends it for their personal gain only.

Judy L Postmus, Sara-Beth Plummer, Sarah McMahon, Nadine Shaanta Murshid and Mi Sung Kim note three different forms of economic abuse, namely –

  • sabotaging how the victim acquires money and economic resources;
  • restricting how money and economic resources are used by the victim; and
  • exploitation on the victim’s ability to maintain economic resources (Judy L Postmus, Sara-Beth Plummer, Sarah McMahon, Nadine Shaanta Murshid and Mi Sung Kim ‘Understanding economic abuse in the lives of survivors’ (2011) Journal of Interpersonal Violence (www.researchgate.net, accessed 8-7-2022)).

Realistic applications of how economic abuse is used by an abuser to threaten their economic security and chance to become self-sufficient by controlling the victim’s financial resources might include –

  • interfering with the victim’s efforts to maintain or to obtain employment to become self-sufficient (this could also include contact harassment of the victim at their work);
  • excluding the victim from family financial decisions or not allowing them access to finances by only giving them an allowance;
  • controlling behaviour to make the victim ask or beg for money, or taking their money that they have earned;
  • demanding an account of everything the victim buys by insisting on receipts;
  • not allowing the victim’s name to be on accounts, which would allow them to build a credit record;
  • humiliating and making fun of the victim’s financial contribution and saying it is worthless or not enough (Dr Amanda M Stylianou ‘Economic abuse within intimate partner violence: A review of the literature’ (2018) 33 Violence and Victims (https://connect.springerpub.com, accessed 8-7-2022)).

Economic control is the exploitation of the abuser where they prevent the ‘victim from having access to or knowledge of the finances and from having any financial decision-making power’ by some of the following actions –

  • controlling and limiting access to financial resources of the victim, even ‘withholding or hiding jointly earned money’ or controlling how the household income is spent;
  • ‘denying the victim access to necessities, such as food, clothing’, a place to live and/or medications or withholding child maintenance;
  • racking up debt on shared accounts or joint credit cards; and
  • ‘tracking the victim’s use of money’ or ‘preventing the victim from having access to a bank account’ (Dr Stylianou (op cit)).

Employment sabotage is the behaviour of the abuser that prevents the victim from obtaining or maintaining employment by ‘forbidding, discouraging, or actively interfering with the victim’s employment and/or educational endeavours’ and ‘obstructing [the] victim from receiving other forms of income such as child support, public assistance, or disability payments’ (Dr Stylianou (op cit)).

When an abuser purposefully behaves in a manner ‘aimed to destroy the victim’s financial resources or credit [worthiness]’, it is considered economic exploitation (Dr Stylianou (op cit)). This could be done by stealing money, the victim’s ATM card or their South African Social Security Agency card, or ‘opening or using a victim’s line of credit without permission’ or ‘refusing to pay bills or running up bills under the name of the victim or his or her children’ (Dr Stylianou (op cit)).

Despite the serious long-term grievous impact of economic abuse and other non-physical acts of domestic violence, the police, prosecutors, judges, magistrates, and victim’s themselves continue to emphasise physical assault as above other forms of domestic violence.

On the one side, ‘economic abuse can contribute to a lifetime of economic struggle’ for the victims and they could be left destitute, without a place to stay, ‘unemployed, and unable to access resources’ and means to rebuild their lives (Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment ‘What is economic abuse?’ (https://ccfwe.org, accessed 8-7-2022)). On the other side, it might result in the abused partner staying for a longer indefinite period with the abuser, which is an ‘ideal’ situation for further abuse.


Eugene Opperman BProc (UFS) LLB Adv Dip Medicina Forensis Adv Dip Business Rescue Management (Unisa) is a legal practitioner at Oppermans Inc Attorneys in Gordon’s Bay.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2022 (Aug) DR 35.