Business Building a safety net against economic abuse

Building a safety net against economic abuse


Sabotage her job. Refuse to work. Demanding she is good for every penny. Destroy her credit. Restrictions on food, shelter, transportation and medicines. These are just a few examples of economic abuse. It is a form of domestic violence that affects most women in abusive relationships, the effects of which often persist even after they have ended their relationship.

Social entrepreneur Meseret Haileyesus established the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE) to build social, financial and regulatory protections against economic abuse. She spoke with Ashoka’s Carolina Nieto about the important steps banks, utilities, industry regulators, government, policymakers and all of us can take to build a more equitable financial system with abuse survivors in mind.

Caroline Nieto: For those of us who don’t know, what is economic abuse and who is affected by it?

Meseret Haileyesus: Economic abuse is a unique and underreported form of domestic violence in which a person seeks control over their partner’s ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources. That includes money, economic resources and financial decision-making power in the family, but it goes beyond financial control.

For example, it includes interfering with a victim’s work and education efforts, preventing victims from receiving other forms of income such as child support, public assistance, or disability benefits, and restricting access to essentials such as food, shelter, bank accounts, or transportation . But the most common form of violence is economic exploitation: when the perpetrator engages in deliberate behavior aimed at destroying the victim’s financial resources or credit. They may take out a loan in their partner’s name and mismanage it, gamble with jointly earned money, refuse to pay bills or steal from them. This leads to extreme financial insecurity, in some cases homelessness and trauma. Economic abuse is often accompanied by other forms of violence, including physical, psychological and emotional abuse.

Not o: How often does it occur?

Haileyesus: Global data shows that more than 95 percent of women who experience domestic violence also experience economic abuse. Withholding money for food, clothing and other basic needs is experienced by 93 percent of women in this situation. The effects on mental health and chronic disease are also well documented. This form of violence makes it very difficult for women to leave their abusive relationship. It affects everyone regardless of socio-economic class, skin color, immigration status, gender, identity, race, you name it. Although in Canada, Black, Indigenous and Colored people are greatly affected, due to other systemic barriers they face.

Not o: You founded the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment because you saw a major gap in addressing and mitigating these impacts. What was your starting point?

Haileyesus: Agencies dealing with survivors, including financial institutions, social services and utilities, often fail to support women, meaning survivors struggle to manage the effects of economic abuse on their own. And one of the reasons is that it’s an invisible problem that we don’t have much data on. That is why we focus on building evidence-based research to inform public policy. Understanding the nature of economic abuse is the first critical step to building support for women and repairing our broken systems.

We recently performed the first national study about economic abuse in Canada, where we surveyed social service providers, financial institutions and bereaved people. We saw a real lack of awareness and a need for culturally sensitive, trauma-informed educational materials and saw significant opportunities for reform. All of this research feeds into our policy work and the tools we build for social service providers, banks, private stakeholders, consumer advocates and more to ensure women have the opportunity to heal, lead and thrive.

Not o: What steps can financial institutions take to help women experiencing economic abuse?

Haileyesus: First, we need to build the capacity of bank employees and credit collectors so they can provide trauma-informed and violence-informed customer service. The second most important thing banks need to do is adopt a confidentiality policy, especially for women who have a joint bank account with their offender, so that their transactions (and location) cannot be tracked. We are asking banks to escalate and flag their customers’ accounts to activate privacy protections if they have experienced domestic violence. With regard to credit card repayments, our policy recommendation includes negotiating longer grace periods – from 60 days to six months – to give women the opportunity to settle into their new lives with their children. We also make recommendations that would make it easier for women to open a bank account, even if she doesn’t have an ID—because they had to leave it with their abuser—or permanent address. Hopefully a lot of this will be implemented in two or three years and I can share our success story with you.

Not o: Are there examples of good policies in Canada that protect against economic abuse?

Haileyesus: Good question. Policy makers, local and federal governments and financial institutions are now recognizing the impact of economic abuse in Canada. We are pleased that, thanks to our work, the federal government has included economic abuses in Canada’s National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. We have come to the point where there is now an understanding of this problem, and that is a huge step.

Moving forward, we also established the National Task Force on Women’s Economic Justice: a group of leaders from financial institutions, consumer advocates, community organizations and social policy advocates that provides government and industry with strategic direction and leadership on the financial impact of economic violence. Inspired by experiences in the UK, Australia and Israel, we are asking the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada and the Canadian Banker Association to create a voluntary financial code of conduct for Canadian banks to improve honest customer service and protect and support women. And there are now more than 100 cities in Canada, the US, Israel, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the UK that recognize November 26 as a national day to raise awareness about economic abuse.

Not o: Finally, as we take this to our personal circle of family and friends, what can we do to support loved ones going through economic abuse?

Haileyesus: First, you can inform them about our checklist source, with tips on things like changing their passwords, storing financial information in a safe location, opening their own bank account, getting a copy of their credit report, and more. Having information about your assets and debts is essential. Second, don’t judge or stigmatize anyone for her trauma or the abuse she’s in. Listen and talk to her, and help her find help. Many women do not leave abusive situations because they are afraid that society will judge them. Finally, we need to talk about building healthy financial relationships without shame or guilt, and starting early with young children. It shouldn’t be taboo.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

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