Guest Blog: Women don't have single issue lives

30 April 2019

A guest blog by Jeanie Lynch, Resilient Women Programme Manager, CoLab Exeter

I’ve been working on a project supporting women in the criminal justice system for the past two years. When you say it like that, it sounds like we run a single issue project, ie supporting women to reduce their risks of reoffending. However, as the saying goes, we don’t run single issue projects because women don’t have single issue lives.

Did you know that one of the most common reasons that women enter the justice system is due to partner-related crime, including what Australians refer to as ‘sexually transmitted debt’? Unpaid bills, credit cards taken out in the woman’s name and then maxed out and left with her, taking control of all household finance, including a woman’s earnings, limiting access to basic essentials such as sanitary protection – these are just some of the stories we’ve heard from women attending our project.

We’ve named it and framed it as financial and economic abuse. And the commonest response from women when talking about it is ‘I didn’t think about it as being abuse at the time.’

The system that women exist in does little to support or understand this type of abuse. The housing department who, despite the woman having had an injunction taken out against her former partner, refuses to take his name off the tenancy due to the unpaid thousands of pounds in rent he left her to pay off, until it is cleared. The woman who tried to disclose to a teacher at her son’s school about what was happening and who was told ‘You’re so lucky to have a man who takes charge of all the bills.’

And the women who end up in the justice system due to having to steal to pay off their partner’s debts, or to pay for his addiction. 48% of women in prison in 2016 were there as a direct result of offending to pay for their partner’s habit.

With these factors in mind, we ran a focus group in 2018 with 17 women to identify what would have prevented their situation, what would help now, and what other women may need in the future. Women felt that a prevention/early help approach for women was essential in order to stop them becoming entrapped in their situation before it started. Many had not had access to financial advice and support when they needed it, and had felt too embarrassed to ask. They identified a gap in support services that recognised their situation as gendered domestic abuse.

Some reported not having recognised their own abuse, as male control of finance had been the ‘norm’ in families in previous generations. There was also discussion about women’s financial abuse being sustained over a number of years.

Education was identified as being key to developing future vulnerability to financial abuse. They told us that they wanted awareness campaigns featuring positive and non-stigmatising language would support women to understand the signs of financial abuse. These could include social media, toilet door stickers, leaflets and safe websites.

Women attending the session who had lived experience of prison talked about the impact of incarceration on their financial capabilities. Women exiting prison now have to deal with the impact of Universal Credit, which offers a single payment of £46 on release, and then a 7-week delay before their first payment. This leaves them vulnerable to further offending behaviours, and also to resorting to ‘survival sex’ in order to get by.

Women also told us that they needed support in basic budgeting skills which were gender specific, in order to help them to recover from financial abuse and to be economically resilient going forward.

So we applied to the Smallwood Trust and were successful in securing funding to develop a twelve- month project which would offer opportunities for long term system change in responding to women who have experienced financial and economic abuse. We are working on this using a triangular model – firstly, examining the evidence base relating to this type of abuse, then gaining the views of women themselves and also the professionals working in the system.

The project is not a service provision, but we are piloting financial capability sessions with women in community settings that have the highest incidence of reported domestic abuse. This is because financial abuse rarely occurs in isolation, and our work has shown that it is often part of a much deeper domestic violence situation, which can also impact on children and even on family pets. We work in partnership with our local domestic abuse support agencies, who offer specialist, long term support to women whilst we focus on the financial resilience and capability side of the work. We’re partnering with one of our local agencies to develop a toolkit for agencies, from banks to Citizens Advice to Housing Projects to Doctors Surgeries that will help them to recognise and respond more effectively to women presenting with financial issues.

What is emerging is the clear need for a gender-specific financial support strategy, that includes direct support for women affected, as well as creating workforce development and infrastructure and system change management pathways and opportunities. It’s fascinating work and it has legs. The challenge for us will to ensure that what we create is strategically embedded across systems beyond the end of our funding.