"Do you have to beg your husband to give you money for food? For travel? For medication? For medical treatment?" reads a notice being circulated now on the Internet and in print. Through the notices, Miri (not her real name) seeks to establish a support group for women suffering, as she does, from financial abuse. "The term financial abuse is known only to a few professionals," she says. "Even women who have experienced financial abuse on a day-to-day basis for years are not aware of the fact that their relationship ... is defined as abuse in every respect."
Miri, 50, an academic who has worked most of her life as a university lecturer, has been married for nearly 25 years and has one daughter. "I only realized about a year ago that my life corresponded to the definition of financial abuse," she says. "I feel great shame that I woke up and understood this [so] late." Miri grasped her situation only after she experienced back pain and required treatment that her health maintenance organization (HMO) would not cover.
"I spoke to my husband, a successful businessman, and he asked me to find out if there was a less expensive treatment available and each time politely put off discussing the subject," she recalls. "I tried to see if I had accumulated money in my supplementary training fund and found that there was no money there at all. I asked to look over the paperwork, but it had disappeared. I approached him and he was evasive. We have a joint bank account, into which I deposited my salary for years, and when I asked to see what shape the account was in, he refused. This refusal was expressed in various ways: He claimed he was tired, explained that I wouldn't understand if I looked at the paperwork alone, and tried to reassure me. Slowly, I began to realize that something was not right.
Living on weekly allowances
"Financial abuse is very sophisticated and concealed, it's like poison gas that you don't see and inhale and then the damage is destructive," Miri adds.
"My husband claimed all along that our financial situation was not good. He did not allow me to walk around with checkbooks or a credit card, only cash. He gave me only around 20 shekels a week and wanted to know what it had been spent on. He would decide on every purchase for the home. He was the only one who did the shopping, and if I asked to come along, he would say 'you need to rest, I'll do the shopping.'
"He would take the car and force me to get rides to work. He did not allow me to buy birthday presents for the children and discussed each and every expense with me. I never purchased clothing on my own. He would go with me every time. The salespeople would be amazed and say, 'what a marvelous husband you have, there aren't any husbands with the patience to go into a clothing store together with their wives.'
"I saw things that way too, but today I realize that he came along to watch over me and to pay [for things] himself. Everything had a veneer of concern ... I didn't understand that I was actually dependent on him and that all of the money was under his complete control."
The nationwide emergency hotline for domestic violence, operated by the Social Welfare Ministry and the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), fielded 154 calls about financial abuse in 2005-2006 - 4 percent of the total number of calls during that period.
For the sake of comparison, 40 percent of the calls related to physical abuse and 38 percent related to verbal abuse. Rivka Neuman, the director of a shelter for abused women, notes that over half of the women who stayed at the shelter in 2006 said they had also suffered from financial abuse.
"Society knows how to identify sexual abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse, but financial abuse has been pushed to the bottom of the chart," she says. "It will always be the last kind of abuse that people will consider serious, but in effect it's the most effective tool for abusing a person and totally controlling them. Money is power, and control of this means affects all aspects of the couple's life. When a spouse prevents his wife from showering in hot water and refuses to allow her to heat the baby's room in the winter or buy diapers and milk, that is actually starving someone; [it is] cruelty and abuse in every respect."
Neuman says that relatives and friends of the couple in question often have no idea of what is going on within the family, because most spouses who are financially abusive are not in financial straits.
"These are families that earn well, [in which] the woman is trapped," she says. "She appears to live in good conditions, but it's a prison without money. The spouse takes control of the money and decides on every expense and she has no opportunity to make decisions.
"It's sophisticated abuse that is deeply intertwined with emotional and verbal abuse, with physical ramifications: In the end, a woman who suffers from financial abuse will face the problems of poverty. She cannot buy school supplies for her children or medication for an ill child."
Neuman says that most of the women who suffer from financial abuse are educated and working, middle-class women.
Emptying out her purse
She says, "They don't correctly interpret the control exerted by the husband over them and they have no right to decide for themselves on the use of the money they earn. They see the husband as stingy or frugal, but have trouble realizing that they are being abused. They have no real idea of how much money there is and where it is. Everything is presented under the guise of concern and saving."
So how does one distinguish between thriftiness and financial abuse? Neuman says that there are several signs: "First, the woman has to ask herself how many people are harmed by her husband's 'stinginess' or 'thriftiness.' There are husbands who won't buy clothes for themselves, but at the same time will not get involved in their wives' wardrobes.
"Does he try to save money only on her and the children and then buy an expensive car for himself? Are their assets registered in her name as well? What does she know about the status of their bank account? Does she have access to the account? And most important, what will happen if she decides to purchase [something] on her own? Will this prompt fear and anxiety over his reaction?"
It is important to remember that financial abuse is based on intimidation. It would not be possible without the wife's fear of her spouse's bursts of anger or constant criticism.
"Women waive the money they earn and their role in managing the budget because of the husband's intimidation tactics ... [like] exhausting criticism and verbal abuse such as 'you're a squanderer,' and 'you don't know how to manage money,' which damage their self-image," says Neuman. "We come across, for example, the phenomenon of a husband who is afraid his wife will run away from home and empties or hides her purse, in order to prevent her from doing so. It's a symbolic act."