The Paradox of Financial independence and Domestic Powerlessness

By Pratibha Salwan

There are many malignant manifestations of inequality that exist within our society that permeate through our interpersonal relationships and manifest in different forms of abuse – seen or unseen. Domestic abuse is the scourge of our society where survivors find themselves vulnerable and voiceless. There is however another form of abuse that is known to occur in 99% of domestic violence cases and yet, not as easily recognized. 

Financial Abuse is a powerful method of keeping a survivor trapped in an abusive relationship and deeply diminishes the victim’s ability to stay safe after leaving an abusive partner. (NNEDV) It can be subtle and can happen to financially aware or independent individuals.

Within the South Asian diaspora in the US, many of the women are educated and successful IT professionals – engineers, testers, business analysts, developers, project managers, sales executives and recruiters. Yet, some of them are “allowed” to work to bring in the money by their husbands and may have disturbing stories to share with their lunch group or support network, which is often, largely constituted of other South Asian women. 



  • A doctor with a medical degree from India moved to the US after her marriage was looking to apply for residency in the US. This would involve shadowing a renowned oncologist and clearing various exams to be able to practice medicine in the US. Her husband refused to even leave her bus money to be able to take a bus to the hospital completely impeding her ability to get independent. 
  • I know of ex-colleagues whose monthly paycheck was taken away and handled by the husband or in-laws, not” allowing“ her to spend on herself despite the financial independence. 
  • Another example I have seen is for the husband (of another colleague) to run up a large credit card bill leading his spouse to stay trapped in the endless cycle of paying the bills. 
  • Or the husband refusing to pay the mortgage on a home that was jointly owned. 
  • There was another incident of physical abuse when the wife refused to share login details for her savings account. 

These are some examples that would constitute this type of abuse that I have personally seen, I am sure there are many other manifestations.

When you look deeper into these disturbing stories, many of which would constitute what can be termed as “financial abuse”, it is easy to pick some common threads. To me, these stories demonstrate how financial abuse is rooted in cultural conditioning, power and control dynamics in relationships and inability of the victims to seek resources and break away from the cycle of abuse.

In many cases of financial abuse I have witnessed or know about, the situation is highly paradoxical in the sense that these survivors are financially independent and stable but absolutely unable to exercise their power.

These women carry a cultural burden placed on them – to be the perfect wife, daughter-in-law, daughter et al. They are seen as strong and independent women at the workforce yet they are mired in societal expectations and unable to balance or change the power equation at home. At work, they fear jeopardizing their reputation should they seek help within the organization and do not want to bring the “baggage” from home into their work environment as well. One of the other big concerns is showing any vulnerability lest they be judged as less competent and capable than their male colleagues. South Asian women also worry about this making it back to their family or social circles as a repercussion of airing “dirty laundry”.

In my experience, I have seen very few women seek help but instead prefer to lighten their burden by sharing with their “lunch group” friends and colleagues; a fact that is corroborated by research (South Asian women in particular are exceptionally vulnerable to underreporting of domestic violence). Perhaps at best they might solicit advice or discuss with senior women colleagues if at all that. 

Financial abuse gets even more complicated with circumstances created by immigration policies and rules could breed or fuel existing financial abuse. A majority of South Asians immigrate to the US on a temporary work (H1B) visa that puts accompanying spouses or family to be on a dependent visa (H4). After policy changes in 2016, H4 visa holders can apply for work authorization but their qualification is still contingent on criteria such as their spouses’ eligibility for green card approval. These hurdles in seeking financial independence could exacerbate financial abuse.

In conclusion

Asian/South Asian societies lay heavy and taxing demands on our women – while we may educate our girls enabling them to find jobs and careers, to be doctors, lawyers and engineers, we still demand them to conform to strong cultural rules and norms so as to not tarnish the “perfect” image that we expect from them. There are various things that women must do to avoid this paradox:

  • Have clear access to the family’s bank accounts to monitor financial health – be these joint or individual accounts
  • Know the family’s debts and assets – debts such as mortgages, credit cards etc. Assets such as equity and savings
  • Should have a clear idea of family’s monthly income and expenses and other budgetary heads 

Organizations can also provide various types of resources – financial literacy workshops for their women workforce, monetary help and others resources to support these victims, but most importantly an empathetic environment that allows them to come forward and ask for help.

As a society, we also need to equip our girls to speak up rather than stay quiet, to stand up rather than sit down, to lean-in rather than to let it go. We need to empower them to find their voice and break the shackles that have held them to outdated cultural expectations.

—— Pratibha Salwan


About the Author:

Pratibha has over 26 years of experience in the IT industry, having lived and worked across the globe in India, US, Singapore and Australia. For the last 14 years, she has been in leadership and executive management positions leading sales and Business Unit P&Ls focused on go-to-market strategies, transformational strategic initiatives and revenue growth.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the speaker/author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raksha, Inc or any of Raksha, Inc’s funders and sponsors, including that of the Department of Justice or Office of Violence Against Women. The information shared in this content is purely from the author’s personal experiences and opinions and does not belong to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.



April is Financial Capability Month and the week of April 10-17 2021, is observed as Money Smart Week. In 2004, the U.S.Congress designated April as National Financial Literacy Month, which has evolved into National Financial Capability Month. National Financial Literacy Month was started as an initiative focused on youth but was adapted to cover all populations 
The National Financial Educators Council defines financial illiteracy as “Lacking the skills and knowledge on financial matters to confidently take effective action that best fulfills an individual’s personal, family and global community goals”.
Per this definition, 67% of adults worldwide could be deemed as financially illiterate according to Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services Global Financial Literacy Survey . This means that around 3.5 billion adults globally, most of them in developing economies, lack an understanding of basic financial concepts. 
No case of domestic violence is the same and every survivor is different. That said, financial abuse is a commonly used tool of power control used by abusers. 
Financial abuse has various manifestations and versions – from not allowing one to have access to money to forcing the victim/survivor work and not have a say in how money is spent. Oftentimes, the individual using abuse chooses not to work as well or is inhibited by visa restrictions as well.
In any case, financial literacy does play a powerful role in helping survivors recover from domestic violence and might even help prevent abuse in the first place. Recent studies demonstrate that financial education led to smarter financial behavior and less financial stress among domestic violence survivors. 
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