explainer

'He took out a million dollars in loans.' The problem with the question: why didn't she just leave?

Commonwealth Bank
Thanks to our brand partner, Commonwealth Bank

Mamamia has launched a new campaign called #ItWasInvisible to shine a light on the unseen stories and signs of financial abuse, along with finance and community partners.

This article contains references to domestic abuse and may be triggering for some readers. If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). 

The feature image used is a stock photo.

When we hear stories of domestic abuse – whether in the media or in the broad tapestry of our social circles – many of us, either out loud or in the privacy of our own thoughts, ask the same question:

“Why didn’t she (or he) leave?”

“Why would you stay?” we ask. Why would you remain in a dangerous situation, instead of trying to get out?

It’s a question that doesn’t necessarily have a sinister intention. In a sense, it’s an attempt to distance ourselves from the possibility that it could ever be us who finds ourselves victim to intimate partner abuse. So we tell ourselves a convenient story: that people who are abused make mistakes. That they make bad choices. That something about their behaviour is what keeps them there. 

The scary reality is that this simply isn’t true. 

If you ask a victim, or an expert, or someone working on the front lines of domestic violence services “why didn’t she leave?”, they have simple answers – and ones with plenty of conviction. 

Because it was dangerous to do so.

Because he didn’t know he was being abused.

Because she was threatened with losing access to her children.

Because she’d be homeless. 

Because she had no money. Because over years and years of asking for her signature on complicated paperwork, he’d put her in debt. Because she couldn’t afford petrol to leave the local area, let alone to start an entirely new life. 

Women and violence: The hidden numbers. Post continues after video.


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The terrifying reality is that there’s a wall of often invisible, psychological barriers that stops victims from leaving abusive relationships. Layers that have been strategically built by an abuser over months or years or decades, designed to block every possible exit for a victim, but remain hidden from a naive observer.  

The closer we come to shining a light on these invisible barriers, the more we’re able to eliminate the perceived distance between victims and the rest of the community. So that instead of asking, ‘why didn’t she leave?’, we can ask the far more relevant question of, ‘why wouldn’t he stop hurting her?’

What are the invisible barriers?

According to Renata Field, media spokesperson for DVNSW (Domestic Violence New South Wales), there are a number of reasons people might not leave a violent situation.

“For a lot of people, staying in a violent relationship is actually safer than leaving,” Field told Mamamia.

“You hear commonly that people are threatened with being killed, they’re threatened with their children being harmed, their friends and family being harmed, and at least when you’re with somebody you know what they’re doing. You know where they are, and there’s some sense of stability even within that volatile relationship, which you would lose once you’ve left. And the research shows that the period immediately after leaving an abusive partner can be really dangerous.”

From her years of working in domestic violence services, Field has seen firsthand how victims are trapped into staying in an abusive relationship.

“One woman, she didn’t have access to any of the bank accounts her partner had set up,” Field said. “And this is very common that people will be given a certain amount of money each week to spend, and that’s not sufficient to actually leave the situation. It’s sufficient to maybe buy groceries for the week, but it’s not sufficient to get a hotel room or get extra petrol to leave the area.

“And this particular person, when she left and tried to sort out her finances, she found there were a large number of loans in her name that her partner had said ‘just sign this’ and she never knew exactly what it was. I’m talking up to eight different loans, of more than a million dollars. After she’d left… she didn’t have access to money. She had been a housewife for many years because her partner had been the breadwinner, and now she’s going through family court for so many challenges.”

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The use of finances to keep victims trapped is alarmingly common. Of those Australians who seek support for intimate partner violence, up to 90 per cent are also affected by financial abuse.

“For many women, it takes many, many attempts before they can successfully leave. And often that will be because of finances,” Moo Baulch, Head of Customer Vulnerability at Commonwealth Bank, told Mamamia.

“Often people will go back because it is easier to go back to that situation and manage the violence and come up with another safety plan in terms of being financially stable and independent… and if there are kids involved as well, it can make it really complex.”

Baulch said financial abuse doesn’t necessarily look how we would expect. Traditionally, we might imagine an abuser taking their partner’s pay packet, but it’s often broader “awful, insidious” behaviour that’s focused on power and control.

“It might be stopping [a partner] accessing Centrelink benefits or childcare benefits, or refusing access to a bank account or a credit card. Or coercing them [into financial decisions] against their will… or ‘I want to see all your receipts for this week, I want you to keep a diary what you’re spending money on, and you need to justify every single expense to me.’

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"If there are kids involved as well, it can make it really complex." Image: Getty.
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"It might be stopping somebody from being able to pay bills, preventing access to resources from the outside, like a car or money for petrol."

Baulch said, at least initially, the control of finances can "come under the guise of being caring".

"[They might say], 'I know you're not good with those sorts of things,' or sometimes there's a financial imbalance in an intimate partner relationship... and both parties might not feel 100 per cent equipped to have equal conversations about money."

Does COVID-19 pose additional dangers?

In addition to the pre-existing barriers that stop victims from leaving abusive relationships, the global coronavirus pandemic can make it even harder.

"The lockdown is a particularly dangerous time for people experiencing domestic and family violence because social isolation is a tool that people who use violence use to harm their victim," Field told Mamamia. "So if there is an enforced social isolation by the state, then those people are going to be more isolated, and it will be even more challenging for them to reach out for support. 

"For a lot of people who are experiencing violence - work or school or regular contact with social groups is a really important way for them to find safety."

Field also said with people confined to their homes more than usual, "it’s hard to find the time and the privacy to reach out for help. 

"People have got kids on their hands 24/7, and if you’re in the same house as someone who’s using violence against you, it’s really challenging at the best of times, but now there’s no space or privacy to make a call."

The increased pressures on employment and finances can also exacerbate existing problems, making the home a "melting pot" of violence or abuse.

Can you still get help?

It's important to acknowledge, however, that leaving an abusive situation to seek help is an acceptable reason to be outside the home, even in the midst of a pandemic.

"All the support services for domestic violence are open, and what’s important to know is that they’re safe as well. The operating has changed a little bit, to make sure people aren’t at risk of contracting coronavirus but they can still provide support to people. For example, women’s health centres are still open, so if people want to present there for counselling, they still can," said Field.

"But a lot of the services are being offered over the phone or remotely. So all of the helplines are open 24/7, and there’s been additional staff to those to make sure there’s enough people to answer what we expect to be a spike in calls, and I think it’s also important for people to know there’s additional temporary accommodation in hotels so people can be safely accommodated if they are experiencing domestic and family violence. And they won’t be forced into shared living situations and at risk of contracting coronavirus."

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How do I help someone I know who might be a victim of domestic abuse?

Particularly at this time, it's crucial for us to look out for the safety and well being of our loved ones.

According to Field, the two most important things we can do if we suspect someone in our lives is experiencing abuse, is to listen and believe.

"If somebody is in immediate risk, then always call the police," she said. "We know that people do die - one woman a week dies, and one child a fortnight - so domestic and family violence is a risk, and it’s important if you think someone is imminently at harm, then to call the police."

But listening and believing - and being a safe person to come to - is one of the most valuable roles we can play in helping victims.

"Never pressure someone to do what you think they need to do," Field said. "Because in the end a person who’s experiencing violence always knows their risk."

If you want more information about how to be a better support person, 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) is also available to speak to people seeking advice about how to help. Field told Mamamia the service has been given additional funding, so people don't need to worry that they're taking away resources by reaching out.

Now, more than ever, we need a broader understanding of 'invisible' forms of abuse and how they might prevent someone from leaving a dangerous situation. Inevitably, there will be stories in the media and in our own social networks of people who have suffered, perhaps even more so during the current pandemic, from domestic violence. Our immediate response needs to shift from the victim-blaming rhetoric of "why didn't she leave?" to "why did he hurt her?", and to bigger questions around what we, as a community, can do to help those caged in by barriers that might be hidden from the outside.

The first step, however, is to shine a light on these realities, and to show victims that we can see them too.

If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency, call 000.

Feature image: Getty.

Commonwealth Bank

Proud partner, Commonwealth Bank. Always consider your personal circumstances before acting on financial advice.

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