Refuge, which is the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, found 1,780 women seeking help – more than a third of the total – had faced economic abuse from their partner, including being denied access to money or a bank account, as well as having debt placed in their name. On average, the mistreatment lasted more than six years.
Three-quarters of the women were also experiencing violent assaults, while about a third had been threatened with murder by their partner. Some 95 per cent had endured psychological abuse and more than a third had suffered sexual abuse and violence.
Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, said thousands of women in the UK are suffering economic abuse from men and such behaviour is used to “control every aspect” of their freedom and independence.
Lucy* said she was forced into tens of thousands of pounds in debt by her ex-husband during their relationship. The 32-year-old said: “I entered into the relationship when I was 16. I was in that relationship until I was 31. I had quite a difficult family home and I ended up moving in with my partner at 17. We got a mortgage very quickly. Straight away we had joint finances.
“He was very materialistic. He would buy things on credit. I was a bit too young to realise what was going on. By the time I did, I was way over my head; because we were so financially tied I didn’t think I’d be able to leave. I fell pregnant after I’d been with him for four years.
“It is very easy to go along with things when you are constantly trying to keep someone happy because the consequences of not doing those things are very severe.”
Lucy said they got into heavy debt but she was working in a full-time bank job which made her anxious as such work is dependent on having a good credit rating.
She left her job after having a baby and her husband convinced her to become joint director of his business.
“He had a lot of debt registered against the business – about £25,000,” she added. “I did not realise that by signing on to the company, I was then liable for all the debt. He sold it to me in a way that I would be more secure but then his business went wrong. And then the other abuse ramped up. There was physical violence. He flew into rages. I knew it was wrong but I had a baby and there was no way I could house myself on my own. I was completely stuck.”
Lucy went back to work when her youngest child was just a few months old after realising she would never be able to “get out of the scenario” unless she had her own income.
She then managed to escape her former husband and get a court order banning him from coming into contact with both herself and the children.
“I divorced him,” she said. “The only way he would accept the divorce was if I took responsibility for half of the debts that were his. I paid off £20,000 of debts that were his own. I had to settle for a 50/50 split on the house and given I had to rehouse myself and three children, that was unfair. As horrible as it is that I had to pay off so much, it was still the best thing for me to do, otherwise, I would still be there now.”
Ms Horley, of Refuge, said the signs of economic abuse were often more difficult to spot and many women do not realise what is happening to them is a form of abuse.
“Not all abuse is physical, although the two often go hand in hand,” she added. “Perpetrators may limit a woman’s ability to open a bank account, pursue work, or buy food and basic essentials. She may be denied access to the family’s welfare benefits, or household finances. They can be left thousands of pounds in debt, owing money which they have never consented to borrowing, and never spent themselves. In many cases, the lack of access to money can prevent a woman from fleeing her perpetrator.”
Adina Claire, of domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, said: “Financial abuse is a form of coercive and controlling behaviour, and too many young women are left with unmanageable debts as a result of their perpetrator’s actions. This can have a devastating impact on the survivor’s life chances, and makes it much harder for her to recover and move on with her life.”