Economic abuse: hard to spot, harder to recover from

June 30, 2020

During the pandemic, women in abusive relationships face long periods of isolation with their abusers alongside decreased job security and limited access to support systems. This isolation exacerbates all forms of domestic abuse, from verbal to physical to sexual. But there is another type of abuse that is less visible and can also worsen under these conditions.

Economic abuse includes controlling, exploiting and sabotaging not only a survivor’s income and finances, but also their access to transportation, education and employment, food, shelter or other non-financial assets. Though the terms economic abuse and financial abuse are sometimes used interchangeably, the latter can fail to capture the extent of the harm.

“It's about money, but it's also about controlling access to resources, financial knowledge, and manipulation of anything that could make your life more secure, or safer,” explains Chitra Raghavan, a professor of psychology who researches intimate partner abuse. 

In a U.S. study from 2008, which involved interviews with 120 survivors of intimate partner violence, virtually all of the survivors (94%) said they had experienced economic abuse. According to a 2019 report by the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (WomanACT), such abuse is often obscured by gender norms and intertwined with other forms of abuse including psychological, sexual and physical.

Raghavan explains that because gender norms typecast men as the breadwinners and financial head of house, it can be hard to determine what is economic abuse and what is sometimes an agreed upon, if highly gendered, norm in a household. 

“When it becomes abusive, to me, is when you can no longer negotiate,” she says. “When you can no longer say, ‘I’d like to know how much [money] I have. I’d like to know this regularly without asking, and I’d like to be consulted on these decisions.’”

Feminist lawyer Pamela Cross adds, “A really big factor is that people of all genders and ages think that it is impolite to talk about money.” She says the taboo around discussing finances means friends and family are less likely to become aware of economic abuse.

“It can also be very easy for people to have a narrow understanding of intimate partner violence and family violence and only think about the physical aspect of that, when really there’s many other kinds of abuse including economic that can be as harmful—or in some cases even more harmful—than physical abuse.”

The 2019 WomanACT study found that, unlike physical abuse, financial abuse often continues long after a woman has left the abusive relationship, because their abuser can maintain contact and control through spousal or child support. Coerced debt and bad credit scores often prevent survivors from securing housing in the short and long terms or make it more difficult to get a credit card, student loan, line of credit, car loan, and potentially a job due to screening by some employers.

As if those challenges are not enough, Cross says women experiencing economic abuse during the pandemic face heightened levels of social isolation, which makes it even harder to get help from family, friends, women’s organizations and legal aid. “For women who are still living with the abuser, it’s all but impossible for them to have the privacy that they need to have frank conversations with a lawyer,” Cross explains.

Job loss related to COVID-19 can also force survivors to remain in an abusive situation. “When women do not have an independent income, it is much more difficult for them to leave, especially if there are children,” Cross says.

The Canadian Centre for Women Empowerment (CCFWE) and organizations like WomanACT are calling for more research on economic abuse in Canada, education initiatives to increase public awareness, and training for both social workers and financial institutions to spot the signs of economic abuse. These groups stress the importance of creating financial literacy programs, credit repair services, and other financial opportunities like special loans and scholarships for survivors of economic abuse. 

For this to be done most effectively, the CCFWE says Canada needs to develop a clear definition of economic abuse, to lay the groundwork for these policies and programs. The recently amended Divorce Act now identifies financial abuse as a form of family violence. Though the inclusion of financial abuse in family law is a positive first step, Cross notes that the Divorce Act only applies to people who are married and seeking a divorce, leaving out a significant subset of people.

The CCFWE’s long-term goal is for there to be a criminal definition of economic abuse, which could both act as a deterrent for potential abusers and provide survivors with a legal recourse.

Natasha Bulowski is a journalist based in Ottawa. She has been volunteering at the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE) since June.