Addressing financial abuse is key  to enabling investment in women

By: Buli Ndlovu, Executive Head: Nedbank Retail & Business Banking Marketing

Buli Ndlovu

With South Africa celebrating Freedom Month in April, it’s imperative to address the disempowerment of women in society and strive for real inclusion that enables true gender equality.

 While a global commitment to uplifting women by fostering educational, healthcare, employment and leadership opportunities is essential, all these efforts and investments cannot deliver their full impact if they occur under a cloud of gender abuse. While there is widespread awareness of the debilitating effects of physical and emotional abuse against women, one insidious barrier that continues to hold many women back is financial abuse – an often-hidden form of coercive control that robs victims of their economic autonomy and freedom.

 According to Family and Divorce Law in South Africa, a third of all adults in South Africa have experienced economic abuse in some form. It’s not surprising, given South Africa’s unacceptably high rate of domestic violence, coupled with the findings of the Centre for Financial Security in the USA, that 99% of people who had suffered domestic abuse of any sort had also been subjected to financial abuse. While it is true that abuse can be inflicted on any gender, the still highly patriarchal social system in South Africa means that most victims in this country are women.

 Before we can truly say that we are investing in, and including, women, we must first address this scourge of financial abuse that permeates our society. No amount of education, healthcare, or employment opportunities will accelerate progress if women remain trapped by abusive partners restricting their financial independence.

Financial abuse occurs when one partner exerts control over the other’s freedom of access to economic resources, creating an intentional state of financial precariousness and dependence. The abuser may limit the victim’s knowledge about finances, restrict their ability to work, steal money or assets from them, or rack up debt under the victim’s name through coercion or fraud. All of which ultimately undermines the victim’s capacity for self-sufficiency and, more concerningly, causes them an inordinate amount of stress and fear.

 On the surface, financially abusive behaviour may seem subtle, like monitoring spending, forbidding employment, or providing an inadequate ‘allowance’ to women who are not earning their own income. But the psychological impacts can be devastating, breeding anxiety, low self-esteem, and a shattering loss of autonomy. Financial abuse is intended to make victims feel powerless and isolated with no means to support themselves outside the relationship.

 In South Africa, where over a third of households are headed by women who are often the primary earners, one would think that the opportunity for the financial abuse of these women would be lower; but this is not the case. Studies show financial abuse persists despite the evolving gender roles in this country. Even when women contribute economically, or are the sole breadwinners in a home, abusers leverage patriarchal attitudes, and often threatening behaviours, to maintain coercive control of their finances. This both disempowers women and perpetuates regressive gender stereotypes.

 Unfortunately, financial abuse is frequently overlooked, and our society still fails to recognise economic exploitation as a legitimate form of domestic violence on par with physical or emotional abuse. It could even be argued that many financial abusers aren’t even aware that their actions constitute abuse. However, financial abuse is a crime, albeit one that has shockingly few legal protections or avenues for recourse in South Africa.

 We urgently need to change these misperceptions, primarily by reframing financial abuse from a ‘private matter’ to highlighting it as the human rights infringement that it is. For too long, the burden of escaping abuse of any sort has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the victim. Attitudes towards financial abuse are no different, as is evidenced by the well-intentioned, but impractical advice often given to victims to secretly stash money or change their banking details. These ignore the fact that taking these actions will almost certainly incur the wrath of the abusers, likely resulting in increased violence. True solutions must go further by prioritising survivors’ holistic safety and helping them to empower themselves in ways that do not put them at further risk of abuse.

Building that path forward starts with fostering greater awareness of financial abuse. We must create space for open dialogue to destigmatise this issue, while helping victims to identify the abuse and understand their rights and options without fear of judgment. Just as importantly, we need comprehensive economic policies and partnerships to support survivors’ journeys from crisis to long-term financial independence, resilience and self-sufficiency.

Financial institutions have a vital role to play in this work. More than providing basic banking services, we must strive to be active allies, uplifting women’s economic security through empathy, education and advocacy – not only investing financially in women, but investing holistically in their prosperity, safety and overall wellbeing.

For us at Nedbank, delivering this type of resilience-building, empathetic and holistic support to women who are victims of financial abuse aligns closely with our purpose to use our financial expertise to do good.

 We are on a mission to create an inclusive space where all women can reclaim their economic autonomy and free themselves from abuse. This includes developing specialised services with community partners to guide survivors through recovery while building financial capabilities. It means raising awareness of this issue with our employees to help them recognise signs of financial abuse and respond with utmost care. And it means using our voice as a force for good to influence and drive policy reforms and social change.

Only once we dismantle the coercive systems enabling financial abuse can we clear the path to truly invest in women’s progress and build environments characterised by full inclusion. Every woman deserves to live with dignity, free from the oppressive chains of economic exploitation. It is time to unite in shining a light on financial abuse and come together to empower survivors to rebuild their lives on the firm foundation of real financial independence.

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