A new report has revealed financial resources are being used to control women by limiting their access to money and even vandalising their vehicles to stop them from getting to work.

The report, titled 'Economic Abuse in New Zealand: Towards an understanding and response', says financial resources are being used to control the freedom of women and children, including access to food, heating and adequate accommodation.

Good Shepherd New Zealand, an organisation which supports disadvantaged women and girls, developed the report in consultation with more than 50 frontline workers and policy makers including community groups, financial institutions and women with first-hand experience of economic abuse.

Social inclusion manager, Nicola Eccleton, said the research should be a catalyst for action.

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"It is alarming to see just how unknown and unaddressed economic abuse is in New Zealand.

"Unlike physical abuse, there are no bruises or outward signs to act as evidence, and the onus is on the woman to prove that it's happening."

Mother of two and former business owner Sarah* never imagined she would be collecting food parcels and welfare payments.

Her husband of seven years developed a severe meth addiction, using deceit to fund his new lifestyle.

Good Shepherd NZ's social inclusion manager, Nicola Eccleton, says the research should be a catalyst for action. Photo / Supplied
Good Shepherd NZ's social inclusion manager, Nicola Eccleton, says the research should be a catalyst for action. Photo / Supplied

That deceit included manipulating her into re-mortgaging the house under false pretences.

By the time she became aware of the lies she was all of a sudden a single mother burdened with debt, no income, a poor credit rating and the very real possibility of losing her home.

Four years on, Sarah is still battling for child support payments and has told he won't pay more until a protection order and supervision order are lifted.

"The breach of trust is ridiculously huge," says Sarah. "He has serious control over me and has taken away any sense of self-worth.

"Many people are also quite happy to look the other way, which adds to my social isolation."

Eccleton said there were many methods of economic abuse forcing women to provide for the family with minimal resources, undermining her ability to earn money, and restricting access to bank accounts.

"One case was of a woman receiving the Working for Families tax credits as her allowance for running the home," says Nicola.

"She received the $60 or $70 tax credit for family costs – groceries, bills, kids' needs. Her husband had decided that was the value of the family-related costs, no discussion. Obviously, she was incredibly stressed and not able to make ends meet.

"This is quite different to making a decision about sticking to a budget as a partnership. It is straight out power and control. Vandalising the car so the woman can't get to work, and therefore be financially independent, is also very common."

The report stated current legal and regulatory conditions were inadvertently supporting and exacerbating the problem.

"Despite good intent changes to legislation are either not strong enough, or, as in the case of Family Court reforms, unintentionally provided a retrograde step that in many cases allowed economic abuse to thrive," it reads.

Eccleton said delays and protracted legal proceedings that women cannot afford were all too common, and were another way for abusers to inflict economic abuse.

In Sarah's case, she had to "fight tooth and nail" to get a lawyer through legal aid.

"Meanwhile, he has the resources and means to pay for his own lawyer, and I am left struggling to make my case against him in court," Sarah said.

Internationally, economic abuse was receiving widespread attention.

Top ranking women's tennis player Serena Williams is fronting a campaign in the United States to raise awareness and help women affected by financial abuse.

Britain's former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was supporting a move to recognise economic abuse when the government puts forward a domestic abuse bill later this year. Legal changes could see alleged abusers prosecuted for "coercive and controlling behaviour".

In Australia, a review of the Family Law Act could see economic abuse considered as a form of family violence affecting property settlements.