For Jenna*, 28, it started when her boyfriend moved in. ‘At first, he’d complain jokily about my job – how it stopped me from spending time with him, how I wasn’t home to have food ready when he got back,’ she explains. ‘I thought it was sweet: he seemed concerned about “us” and having this perfect life together.’ But slowly, it turned sinister. ‘I was in love with him, so when he threatened to leave if I didn’t quit my job, I didn’t want to lose him. He framed it as him wanting to take care of me, to earn on behalf of both of us so that I could stay at home.’
But in quitting her job, Jenna became entirely financially dependent on her boyfriend. What had once been the flat she was renting, with her furniture, paying her own bills, became a prison. ‘I became so unhappy: I was home alone, I missed my job and colleagues, I felt isolated. I lost friends who couldn’t understand why I was willing to do what my boyfriend wanted. But now I was stuck – without my boyfriend, I couldn’t afford to live. I couldn’t even afford to do a grocery shop or pay my phone bill without him. I’d gone from being financially independent to being totally beholden to him.’
This meant her boyfriend told her what to do, eat, buy, wear – after all, he was paying for everything, and she needed his permission to spend money. ‘I couldn’t buy a dress or makeup without his permission – and he’d have a say in whether he thought it was worthwhile spending money on. Because he was paying my bills, he had access to my phone bill and records, my bank account, my receipts. I had zero control and zero privacy.’ Jenna was being financially abused.
What is financial abuse?
‘Financial abuse takes place when someone deprives you of economic or financial resources which you’re entitled to under law or which you require out of necessity, for example, where the abuser controls all of your access to money, perhaps forcing you to give them bank account information,’ explains Thandiswa Maholwana, a Legal Aid Advice Line attorney. ‘Financial abuse isn’t limited to married couples.’ An uncle, guardian, aunt, brother or even a friend can financially abuse you – if they’re depriving you of financial resources you’re legally entitled to.
According to the People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) legal department, ‘Financial abuse is when someone has control over your access to economy or finance. This can include forbidding you from working or asking you to quit their job; forcing you to be financially dependent on the abuser; and fundamentally diminishing your capacity to support yourself financially.’
How does the law protect you?
‘Our law makes provision for the protection of abuse through the Domestic Violence Act. The procedure is the same irrespective of the type of abuse,’ explains Lizelle Erasmus of Legal Aid Advice Line. So the law protects you, even though financial abuse isn’t the same as, say, domestic abuse.
You can apply at your nearest magistrate court for a protection order against an abuser. ‘In the instance of financial abuse, the order might say that the provider must give you a specific amount or make payments to you,’ adds Erasmus. ‘Depending on the type of abuse, the order can be framed in a manner that will protect you against the abuse.’
If you’re worried your abuser could become violent if you report them to the police, you should flag this immediately. Protection orders can be granted urgently to ensure your abuser can’t contact you, for example, or come within a certain distance of you.
And collect evidence to help support your case: ‘Keep financial records, receipts and statements of accounts. Any documentary evidence will assist in proving your case. You can also use SMSes and WhatsApp messages to prove your case, as well as medical reports with regard to physical or mental/emotional harm sustained,’ says Maholwana.
What can you do?
Two years after her boyfriend moved in, Jenna was able to find freedom. ‘I opened up a secret bank account – my boyfriend had access to all of my other accounts at this point – and started a part-time job. My boyfriend would leave for work, then I’d secretly walk into town where I was working on a shop floor a few hours a day. It meant I could be home whenever I needed to be. It meant I could hide my income.’
It took Jenna over a year to save enough secret cash to move out. ‘I spent nothing during this time – every cent I earned went into my secret account. I was focused on saving for two things: a rental deposit, so I could move out, and the cost of movers so I could get all of my furniture and belongings out of the place I shared with my boyfriend.’ Finally, one morning, after waving goodbye to her boyfriend as he left for work, Jenna began her escape. Movers arrived to cart off all her stuff to a new flat she’d secured with one month’s deposit money. ‘I negotiated with the landlord to let me only pay one month in advance. I couldn’t afford any more. Luckily, she understood my situation and trusted me.’ Jenna hadn’t been able to pack a thing, to avoid her boyfriend realising she was leaving. ‘I frantically threw things into bags. Most things went into the moving van loose. I prioritised taking the big furniture items that were mine, and then my essentials: clothing, toiletries, paperwork.’
Jenna had done her homework, too. ‘I’d e-mailed the landlord I shared with my boyfriend the month before and told him the situation I was in. I asked for his confidentiality, but also that he would release me from the contract and negotiate a new one with my boyfriend after I’d left. Thankfully, he agreed. I also went and bought a pay-as-you-go sim card, so that when my phone cut off after I moved out, I wouldn’t be totally stranded.’
Leaving her key behind as she left, that was the last day Jenna ever saw her boyfriend. ‘He tried to contact me afterwards, but I ignored his calls and e-mails. I cut out anyone who we had in common – to keep me safe and my location secret, but also to help me heal – and I never disclosed where I was staying to him.’
The same day that she moved out, Jenna also closed all of her bank accounts that her boyfriend had access to, and made sure she talk her personal paperwork, including her ID book, with her. ‘I also changed every single password I could think of. I didn’t want my boyfriend to be able to access or see anything after I’d left.’
A few months later, Jenna had a new job, and while the trauma and fear of being discovered by her ex remain, she is regaining her freedom. ‘I’m slowly rebuilding the friendships I lost during my relationship. I’ve reached out to old colleagues. And I’ve shut down anything related to my relationship: bank accounts, phone contracts, friendships. My family don’t live near me and can’t financially help me, but they’ve been hugely emotionally supportive from afar. Never again will I let a man financially abuse me.’
Jenna is also working through her trauma via counselling – a resource she’s tapped into via LifeLine. ‘It’s been tough, but being free is worth it all.’
According to POWA, take these steps to help empower yourself towards financial freedom:
- Reach out to people you can trust like friends, families and NPOs who can shelter you and your children until you can get back on your feet.
- Make an exit plan, plotting slowly a way out of the relationship.
- Establish credit by getting a secure separate bank account that your abuser doesn’t know about.
- Get yourself financially empowered by getting a job, education and skills to gain financial independence.
- Apply for maintenance at your local magistrate court.
- Make sure that when you leave, you have key documents like your ID book with you. Change any passwords your abuser may know of; change your phone number; go to the bank and advise them you are not authorising your abuser to access your accounts. If need be, close your existing accounts and open new ones.
Legal Aid Advice Line (free)
- Call 0800 110 110 (toll-free) or the Please Call Me service through 079 835 7179
- They will also be able to tell you which Legal Aid office is closest to your location
- Call their HQ: 011 642 4335
- Download the free POWA GBV app for Android or iOS to report abuse and find help centres near to you
- Call 0861 322 322
- Dial *134*7355#
- Call 10111
- Visit their FCS Unit
*Name has been changed