One of the most derailing misconceptions regarding domestic violence is that a vast majority believes it encompasses only physical violence, whereas physical violence is only one of the many manifestations of abuse. Physical abuse is invariably accompanied by emotional, and economic abuse, and could also include sexual abuse. While ample research is dedicated to analysing physical/sexual violence, economic abuse remains comparatively less recognised, due to the complexity of the subject and its intertwining with other forms of abuse, making it less visible. This article aims to help the reader understand economic abuse and the legal provisions available to Indian women to battle it.
Without a globally accepted definition, academicians define economic abuse as ‘a situation where an aggressor exerts control over the victim’s ability to earn, use and maintain economic resources’. This includes exercising control over the victim’s access to/use of money, preventing gainful employment, controlling choice of residence, food and clothing. By exerting control over the victim’s access to economic resources, perpetrators build dependency and ensure victims do not leave their abusers, thus leaving victims open to more harm for lack of viable alternatives.
The term ‘Economic Abuse’ is often confused with ‘Financial Abuse,’ (control over the victim’s money/ bank accounts, stealing money, refusing to contribute to household expenses etc) – however, given its nature, financial abuse may be understood as a subset of economic abuse. Controlling behaviours of an economic nature go beyond the ambit of only financial abuse.
Economic abuse is a relatively new legal concept despite its ubiquity in cases of domestic abuse. Until 2021 even countries like the United Kingdom did not legally recognise it as a form of abuse and women had no legal remedies. Thankfully, India was an early starter in 2005 when the Parliament enacted the “Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA),” which recognised economic abuse and built legal safeguards. PWDVA recognises economic abuse as a form of domestic violence under Section 3(a) and lays down a 3-point criteria to define it as actionable crime:
(a) Depriving economic resources including household expenses, property and ‘Stridhan’.
(b) Disposing monetary assets, property, valuables required for victims or their children.
(c) Preventing use of any resource that victims would be entitled to by virtue of a relationship.
Some important sections that empower courts to protect women from economic abuse include :-
(a) Section 12(1) - directing the abuser to pay financial compensation to a victim.
(b) Section 17 – preventing an abuser from expelling a woman from her house, even if she has no ownership.
(c) Section 18(e) – prohibiting abusers from unilaterally accessing and disposing assets, bank accounts/lockers, ‘Stridhan’ or any other jointly held property.
(d) Section 19 - directing an abuser to leave a household; or providing alternative accommodation/ compensation to victims.
(e) Section 22 – entitles victims to claim compensation from abusers for distress caused.
(f) Section 26 - allows cases to be heard in criminal, civil and family courts – thus simplifying redressal.
PWDVA has many barriers to implementation. Firstly, insufficient staffing and numbers of Protection Officers had led to massive workloads and high volume of cases for those who undertake this role, which has been highlighted by the Supreme Court. Secondly, people don’t understand economic abuse, and still perceive it as a ‘family issue’. They dissuade victims from filing cases, urging them to ‘sort it out’ amicably. Thirdly, in the 2006 case of SR Batra Vs Taruna Batra, the Supreme Court caused a setback by narrowing the definition of a ‘shared household’ to ‘a house that is owned/rented by the victim’s husband. Thus, economic abuse of unmarried women in parental homes or those in live-in relationships goes unaddressed.
The enactment of PWDV catapulted women’s safety into the national spotlight. We need to build people’s confidence in the law and courage to file complaints/ cases; set a strong record of justified convictions; have open conversations to change societal mindsets and achieve an overall reduction in economic abuse year-on- year. Until then we have much to do and achieve.’
 3(a) - Definition of Domestic Violence: harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, life, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical, of the aggrieved person or tends to do so and includes causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse.  Stridhan - Goods, property given to a woman by her family at the time of her marriage for her use.