When Samantha* left her abusive marriage—her credit ruined by the debt her husband had fraudulently accumulated in her name, the bank account linked to their joint mortgage closed without her knowledge—she was shocked to discover that no one working in the shelter she was staying in had any information or resources to share with her about what she was experiencing.
On top of that – her bank –one she’d been with for years and had multiple personal and business accounts with, said they could not help her.
She felt like the system was setting her up to fail.
It would be a long road back to financial health for Samantha, and although she would eventually succeed, she had little outside help.
It is stories like Samantha’s that inspired Meseret Haileyesus to create the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE), a non-profit dedicated to helping domestic violence survivors empower themselves, particularly economically, and raise awareness about the prevalence of economic abuse.
Economic or financial abuse (the two terms are often used interchangeably) is a common form of intimate partner violence that is closely linked with other types of domestic abuse. While there is a startling lack of research on the prevalence of the phenomenon in Canada, a recent report on economic abuse from WomanACT notes that US studies indicate that between 94 and 99% of women who experience intimate partner violence also experience some financial abuse. Canada, however, does not even have a clear definition of the term, and as Samantha discovered, workers in our shelters, financial institutions, and other social services are not trained to help women address or even identify it.
In the context of intimate partner relationships, economic abuse is when one partner controls, limits, or exploits the other’s access to financial resources to control, harm, and/or manipulate them. Examples of financial abuse include a partner demanding a woman turn over her paycheques, tax refunds, or government benefits, stealing money from her wallet, controlling how much she is allowed to spend, including on items such as groceries, medication, transportation, or necessities for her children, pressuring a woman to sell things or change a will, taking out credit cards in her name and racking up debt, refusing her access to bank accounts, or even limiting the hours she works, or also if she works at all. Abusers sometimes continue to sabotage and control women’s finances and/or access to finances after separation, with a 2015 UK study finding that 1 in 4 women experienced financial abuse even after they’d left an abuser.
Photo: Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment (Sample Image)
Financial abuse can have a profoundly devastating effect on women: it impacts mental health and impedes a woman’s ability to leave an abuser, subsequently prolonging the amount of time she is vulnerable to harm. It can also negatively affect her financial well-being long after she has left the relationship.
If a woman’s partner has racked up debt in her name, for example, she may not be able to find an apartment to rent, as landlords sometimes check credit scores. If she is constantly trying to pay off accumulated debt, she may not be able to provide for herself of her children, increasing her risk of returning to the relationship. Proving that a partner committed credit or other fraud can be extremely difficult, and often requires spending an exorbitant amount on legal fees. Re-establishing credit in order to find housing or get access to a loan in order to go back to school or start a small business with the intent of becoming financially self-sufficient can be a discouraging and uphill battle.
The Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment was created in order to fill the disturbing gap in resources dedicated to helping women recover from economic abuse in our country. CCFWE aims to support domestic violence survivors through advocacy, mentorship, and economic empowerment, with a specific focus on working with survivors to improve their financial knowledge and behaviors to better their financial safety and security. We also work to raise awareness about financial abuse in the community and work with policymakers and financial institutions to create resources, policies, and tools to help prevent it and better support the women who’ve experienced it.
Here are some of the initiatives we’re currently working on:
- Educating women and the general public about financial abuse through educational materials, including brochures, webinars, knowledge-sharing platforms, and media outreach.
- Creating resources to train social workers, shelter workers, and workers in financial institutions to be able to identify, prevent, and support women experiencing economic abuse.
- Creating a National Working Group to conduct badly needed research on economic abuse in Canada with the goal of publishing a report that includes recommended best practices to share with members of parliament, policymakers, banks, mortgage lenders, women’s shelters, and other national and international organizations.
We also support domestic violence survivors through weekly support groups, which have gone virtual due to COVID-19, are creating self-care guidelines for survivors, and run an entrepreneurship program.
We are currently looking for members to join the National Working Group for Economic Justice. For more information, click here.
It is time we all started talking about economic abuse.
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.