Migrant Indian women face rising financial abuse during pandemic

By Indira Laisram
Supriya Singh

The coronavirus is beginning to see who is getting most affected. As the economic shutdown extends to months, women, it appears, are at the receiving end of this downturn. They are losing jobs at a higher rate, getting lower paid work and suffering economic abuse at the hands of their partner or spouse. Supriya Singh, whose research focuses on ‘The Violence of Money’ among the Anglo-Celtic and Indian communities in Australia and the sociology of migration and remittances, warns that financial abuse is going to increase because of the economic fragility where both men and women are losing jobs.

Financial abuse, legally, is part of the definition of family violence, says Singh. “COVID-19 has led to increased calls from women experiencing family violence.” She believes that migrant women experiencing family violence will be more vulnerable as their families overseas are unable to give them face-to face support. And, more worrying is the silence of women who are trapped. 

“You are going to see an absolute swell in cases because restrictions and lockdown are the kind of environment where abusive behaviour thrives. Isolation, fear and entrapment are key elements of coercive control at the centre of family violence, but the worse thing is the difficulty of showing evidence,” says Singh, an honorary professor in the Graduate School of Business and Law at RMIT University.

Singh discusses at length about this ‘invisible’ economic abuse and the increased risk of financial abuse facing many women, particularly Indian, during the pandemic, and more.

There is a reported rise in family violence incidents since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. How much of financial abuse is reported?

Financial abuse, legally, is part of the definition of family violence. Family violence includes physical, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. That is part of the Family Protection Act 2008 in Victoria. The problem is, financial abuse is the most invisible aspect of family violence. That is because our whole idea of family violence is still very much that it is physical assault, for a couple of reasons. In Australia, people don’t talk about money that much, it is seen as very private. Second, legally also only the physical assault is directly seen as crime. So, we don’t have the signal coming from law and society that being financially abused is a terrible thing to happen to you. Therefore, more and more women who are experiencing financial abuse keep quiet about it. They are ashamed and embarrassed that it has happened to them, particularly when they are well educated, and sometimes they are the main earner of the households.

They don’t want to talk about it because they can’t understand how it could possibly happen to them, but it has happened to them the same way other aspects of family violence has happened, where, usually the man is abusing the woman. These abuses start with him denying money to the woman, appropriating her assets, preventing her from going to work, from using the mobile phone or not allowing her to use the car. In cases among Indian women, demanding dowry, threatening to have her deported, and he or his family taking control of her jewellery are some examples. These are things that have been thought out and it’s just a package of abuse. It just does not happen once. And it’s difficult to show evidence of it.

■ How does financial abuse happen in Indian families?

In the Indian cases, one of the things is if the man is settled here and his bride has come from India he tells her in order to get her permanent residency (PR) they should set up a joint account. He is right in that because that is what happens in an Anglo Celtic community in Australia. The woman says fine because she is willing to trust him. Then she finds that only her money is in the joint account if she is earning, whereas his money goes to a separate account. On top of that, he takes out the money whenever he wants.

In one case, the woman puts the money in the joint account and doesn’t see her money increasing, at which the man says he has taken it out. When she tells him to leave her a little to spend, he turns a deaf ear. In yet another case, the man pushes the woman to work and tells her to open a joint account, which she agrees to. These women I am talking about are professionally qualified, they have been working in India before their marriage. Interestingly, in few cases when the women have gone to the bank to open a joint account, the manager says it’s an easy process as the man already has an account and so the manager suggests making the man’s personal account into a joint account. Then the man insists on opening a separate account for her because his idea of a joint account is him having access to her money.

■ What else does your research say about the financial abuse in Indian community?

In the Indian community, it can happen within a joint family. You get cases where the mother-in-law, the brother-in-law or the sister-in-law are all party to the abuse. In the Indian community, the red flag is very much when the mother-in-law says, ‘why don’t you hand me the jewellery, I will keep it safely or give it to your brother-in-law to keep it in his bank vault’. Obviously, she wants to control her jewellery, which to a new bride is very emotional, it is a symbol of the relationship she has with her natal family. Sometimes, the jewellery has come down through the generations—from grandmother to granddaughter, mother to daughter. So, these are very precious emotionally as well as materially.

The other thing is, he will say, ‘why don’t you just hand over the money for me to manage it’. And if she has not ever seen problems of money in her household, she is willing to trust him unless proven otherwise. In the Anglo Celtic community, it is going to be seldom that the man will tell the woman to put her money into his account. It will often be through the joint account.

■ What are the most common forms of control abusers exercise?

In migrant families, in order to isolate the woman, the family will either restrict her use of the mobile phone or monitor it. The family goes through her mobile phone to see who she has called and so on. Now with WhatsApp, it is easy to call but before when you had these plans and international calling on mobile phones, the bills were exorbitant and that is when all hell broke loose.

Dowry is also a main issue but that is because of the lack of inheritance in India, but again, dowry is only one form of economic abuse. Even when there is no dowry problem, the other issues of economic abuse continue with him not giving her any money, taking all her money if she is earning, and monitoring her expenditure—it’s a matter of control.

I had one case where the woman was a computer engineer and the major earner in the household. She bought Papadum (flatbread) for two dollars and he fought with her saying she could have got them for half the price from a different suburb. In this particular case, the two met while studying in Australia and before marriage she had already talked to him about repaying back the loans her parents had taken for her studies. So, they talked about organising the finances and putting in money in a joint account to take care of the mortgage and other expenses. Before marriage he agreed to the plan but after marriage he told her that the money that comes belonged to him and his family. Within two years, the marriage broke up. Financial abuse does not always come alone, it is accompanied by emotional abuse and physical assault.

■ Are Indian women reticent about seeking help from families?

This idea that Indian women are not supported by their families is not always true. Sometimes, they don’t want to tell the family, they are a bit embarrassed and they don’t want to worry them. They think divorce is a terrible thing to happen and often worry about a younger sister (if they have one) and how will she get married. But when they finally do tell, at least in the research that I have done on Indian women here, the families are supportive.

In some cases, the family from India immediately sent the ticket to the woman so she goes back and then husband says, ‘oh I want you back’. She believes him and comes back only to face the same violence again. In the case of the computer engineer I mentioned earlier, she confided in her mother who told her that the first year of marriage is always difficult and advised her to keep quiet, which she did. The father was not informed as he was unwell but when he finally got to know, he was very angry with everybody who had told her to adjust. He told his daughte ‘get beaten or get out’. She got out.

In at least half the cases with Indian women, when the woman has left and is alone with a child or without, the mother or the sister or both come to be with her. So, they are very supportive. It makes a great difference if your family and friends are supportive and for you to gain some confidence.

■ How different is the cultural practice around money in Indian and Anglo Celtic communities?

Financial abuse is universal but because the cultural practices around money differ, it is assumes different forms. In India we get dowry abuse, in the Anglo Celtic community, it won’t be dowry abuse but that does not mean there is not as much economic abuse in Anglo Celtic community. In India and in a lot of other cultures, where sending money home is seen as a moral duty, you will again see remittance is used to abuse the wife. Again, that is not found in the Anglo Celtic community but they have cases where the man stops providing or takes all the money from the joint account and disappears. Well, the Indian husband does the same thing too.

■ Are migrant or Indian women more vulnerable?

Yes, the reason being, one, they are isolated from family and friends and that is what every man who is abusing his wife or partner wants. Two, in India the Protection of Women From Domestic Violence Act has a legal provision around family violence but there are very few services. So, the woman, when she comes here doesn’t know that she has access to services that will support her. Third, understanding migration law is complex because it is different for a temporary visa holder and for the one on the route to permanent residency—each has access to different kinds of benefits. But, say, if you are on a student or tourist visa you have very little entitlement from family violence. A lot of organisations are trying to advocate for reform to plug this hole. If you are on the spouse visa and on the way to PR and you can show that you have evidence of family violence, then you do not need the sponsorship of the husband to gain PR.

■ Why are remittances a form of abuse in Indian community?

Among Indians sending money home is a medium of care for parents. It is seen as the moral thing to do. Imagine what happens if a man sends all his money and some of his wife’s earnings to his family without asking her so his family can build a five-bedroom house with marble floors while they don’t have a proper house or a car for their work in Australia? All of sudden what is supposed to be a moral act towards his parents becomes an abusive act towards his wife.

Now, an Indian woman is inclined to trust her husband with money because she most likely has grown up with the idea of male control. But with this male control, just as in many other cultures, you have a certain morality of money associated with it. If the man is controlling the money, he is also seen as primarily responsible for the welfare of the wife and children. In a joint family, the head of the joint family is managing the money and he is responsible for everybody’s education, health, food, lodging, etc. But if you are using remittances without morality or you are using the money in the household without concern for everybody’s welfare, then it becomes abusive.

■ What are the signs of financial abuse that women should pick up?

There are several signs. Does he make you feel inadequate with money? Is he denying you money? Is he freely spending your earnings in the joint account while he places his money in a separate account? Has he taken loans on your name to pay for a car that only he uses? Has he asked you to sign for loans for his business? Has he prevented you from giving reasonable gifts to your family and friends on special occasions? Is he appropriating your property? Is he gambling? Gambling is part of economic abuse. Has he demanded dowry? Is he sending all his money and some of yours without consultation to his family overseas for luxuries? Has your husband’s family taken control of your jewellery? Does he threaten you with deportation if you do not listen to him?

If you have ticked one or more of these questions, it is a red flag. Call the family violence hotline.

■ Are there financial empowerment programs?

Very often financial counselling happens after the separation when you come out of the marriage and you find debts. That means he has made you sign loans for his family, companies, for his car and all the utility bills are in your name and he has disappeared. The financial counsellor will help you with hardship provisions, negotiate with banks and now banks have quite a bit of leeway because it was incurred as part of family violence.

When you say information, financial abuse is different from learning how to deal with banks or learning how to save or invest. These are the kinds of things that you learn in financial literature, literacy and capability courses. A lot of these women are financially capable, it’s that the man is consciously using money as a way to abuse. He is also most likely physically assaulting the woman, most likely telling her that she is unattractive and doesn’t know how to cope, that she is not a good wife, etc.

What helps is to name and recognise financial abuse. Don’t keep quiet or feel embarrassed and ashamed and say ‘it’s all my fault’. Think of it as something that is being done to you and start taking action.

The only one sure-fire rule in family violence is: the faster you get out, the better off you are as he is not going to change if he is abusing you. This is not a financial literacy or financial capability issue, he is using money in order to take away your human rights.

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  1. Thank you for your research, Professor Singh. It’s really important to shine a light on these behaviours, regardless of which community they occur in.