After two decades of marriage and being a stay at home mum to five children while her husband traveled and built his career, Felicity Guest’s ex decided to leave her for another woman.
"When my husband left all I had was a small CMT workshop that grew from a hobby which never produced enough income to sustain the family or support our intellectually impaired son who needs support for the rest of his life,” Felicity told Parent24. “I didn't even have a car."
She shares how her husband divorced her fraudulently, and the estranged couple spent years in courtrooms as she fought for her rights, and those of her children.
Throughout, her ex-husband controlled and manipulated her through money.
From her pain and frustration grew a desire to become an advocate for other financially abused women, and along with it came a sense of responsibility to spread awareness on the issue of financial abuse.
Many years later, Felicity is a social justice, human rights and gender activist.
Child Maintenance Difficulties
In January 2019 she founded an NPO called Child Maintenance Difficulties in South Africa (CMDSA), which sprung from a Facebook group she created based on her frustrations at holding her former husband liable for the maintenance of their children.
CMDSA’s ultimate goal is that every child in South Africa is financially supported by both parents, which is their right, in order to alleviate systemic poverty of single headed households.
The group supports and informs women about their children’s rights, the Maintenance Act and court protocol in line with the legislation to be able to get justice for their children.
She explains that the Maintenance Act and Maintenance Court is meant to be easily accessible to the general public without legal representation to uphold the child’s right to financial support from both parents as the best interest of the child is paramount, but it fails to do so.
Felicity explains that financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to gain power and control in a relationship.
“In the current economy most families are one paycheck away from being homeless, economists talk about this often yet in Maintenance courts it is not a concept they understand,” she says.
Every postponement in the maintenance courts creates food and shelter insecurity for a mother and her children, she says, and this is a direct violation of the Bill of Rights.
Forms of financial abuse
Financial abuse may be subtle or overt, but typical forms of financial abuse would include intentionally depleting women’s available resources by over litigating the divorce process, and by withholding financial support in the form of child support.
Defaulters will frustrate legal processes by changing court dates, postponing for legal representation, postponing due to ill health and then also just not arrive on the date set by the court. In many cases, this leads the magistrate or Maintenance Officer to advice women to find legal representation, usually at extra cost.
“This controlling, exploitative and has the same emotional impacts as all other forms of gender-based violence. Furthermore, financial abuse is often intersected with physical and sexual abuse post-relationship,” Felicity maintains.
Pushing women and children further into poverty
She explains that financial abuse along with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse includes behaviours to intentionally manipulate, intimidate, and threaten the victim in order to entrap that person in the relationship.
In some cases, financial abuse is present throughout the relationship and in other cases, financial abuse is present when the survivor is attempting to leave or has left the relationship.
"It is pushing women and children further into poverty, a cycle that they will probably never escape. It is the cog of the domestic violence wheel and the glue that keeps the victim beholden to the abuser," she says.
Abuse of the justice system
She has done a large amount of research on the topic of financial abuse, which is globally defined as economic abuse, and feels there is a paramount need for a broadening of the definition of Financial Abuse in the Domestic Violence Act.
She says this is key to informing the various role-players; the judiciary, SAPS, mediators and social workers, of the different aspects of Financial Abuse.
Felicity is herself intimately aware of all these angles, having been evicted, charged, harassed and intimidated by her ex-husband, as he repeatedly failed to pay maintenance and meet his financial obligations in terms of their children’s needs.
She believes the abuse of the justice system by defaulters is problematic and there should never be a postponement without interim maintenance in place, otherwise, there is no incentive to finalise a maintenance agreement.
The best interests of the child
“This is an issue I raised with the Department of Justice at their strategy session, they are just as guilty as the defaulter for pushing women and children into poverty,” she says.
“It should be their priority to be educated on the Constitution and all the International treaties our countries are signatory to ... the best interest of the child is paramount. Paramount means before all else, before the defaulter eats, or pays his debts, his responsibility is to make sure his children have food and shelter.”
“How does one go to bed at night without caring whether their child has eaten?” she asks.
Children at risk
"52% of children in South Africa grow up with an absent father and no financial support, there is a direct link to poverty and therefore should be a priority for the Maintenance Courts," Felicity explains.
Women who are in abusive relationships stay due to not being able to provide security for their children, she says, and would rather endure the abuse than put their children at risk.
There is a shortage of social workers and councillors, women and children are not getting the support they require to deal with the trauma, which means mothers are depressed and children have behavioural problems, she says.
National Child Support Awareness Week
Felicity has worked tirelessly for the past two years raising awareness and advocating for change, unfunded, depending only on small donations.
The result of her hard work is National Child Support Awareness Week, a first in South Africa, which runs from 4 to 10 December, before culminating in International Child Support Day on the 10th of December.
For more information on this initiative, or to join the movement, visit cmdsa.org.za.
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