As you scroll through your newsfeed, you read, “Black women suffer disproportionately from abuse.”
You stop scrolling and think. If your newsfeed is filled with important messages about the fight against racial inequality, perhaps you interpret “abuse” as structural abuse against institutions with histories that are both racist and sexist. If you’re well versed in domestic abuse literature, perhaps “abuse” elicits images of violent encounters between intimate partners. This would also be reasonable, considering Black women experience intimate partner violence up to three times more than white women.
After this reflective exercise, you shrug and keep scrolling. Chances are one crippling kind of abuse, economic abuse, didn’t come to mind. And it isn’t your fault.
As a women’s rights advocate and defender of all things feminist, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this term until I reached out to the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE), an Ottawa-based non-governmental organization fighting to expose the economic abuse in marginalized communities. Economic abuse is a major – and understudied – type of abuse usually grouped with domestic violence. As explained by Women’s Aid (2019), economic abuse encompasses “a range of behaviours which allow a perpetrator to control someone else’s economic freedoms.”
While financial abuse refers to denying or restricting access to money, economic abuse extends to other forms of economic control such as denying someone’s access to education and/or employment.
Economic abuse has tremendous impacts on the health of survivors, both psychologically and physically. A study published in the Hindawi International Journal of Family Medicine found a positive relationship between economic abuse and psychological stress. Furthermore, both psychological and economic abuses are stronger predictors of suicide attempts than physical abuse. A study in the Children and Youth Services Review suggests that economic abuse may exacerbate maternal depression. Beyond the purely psychological diagnoses, increased stress associated with economic abuse can lead to cardiovascular disease among other health conditions.
As you might have guessed, the impacts of economic abuse play out differently depending on the ethnicity race, and socioeconomic position of the victim. Since 95 per cent of women who experience domestic abuse report experiencing economic abuse (Surviving Economic Abuse, 2020), and Black women make up a disproportionate number of domestic abuse victims, it’s reasonable to deduce that economic abuse disproportionately impacts Black women in terms of sheer numbers.
In a private chat room for victims of domestic violence, one anonymous participant explained that economic abuse is so dangerous precisely because it leaves survivors without the financial means to escape. For Black women, this is accentuated for multiple reasons.
In Statistic Canada’s 2020 report, Black women consistently had lower employment rates, higher instances of unfair treatment or discrimination at work and lower median annual wages than Black men, white men and white women from 2001 to 2016. With these structural factors at play, Black women are more likely to face hardships than white women when seeking employment after fleeing an economic abuse situation.
“Women of colour are disadvantaged by (economic abuse) for various socio-economic injustice factors,” says Meseret Haileyesus, founder of the CCFWE, adding that there are multiple “hidden and very complex” challenges for non-white women who are facing economic abuse. She grouped these barriers into three main categories: stigma, lack of information and non-intersectional service.
Stigma refers to the double edge of stereotypes and shame associated with talking about economic abuse. Amani Allen, associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that there are complicated implications of breaking out of the too-often imposed “strong woman” mould that Black women face. Seeking help not only can lead to potential embarrassment but can also make victims feel they are betraying the Black community. It isn’t surprising then that Black women are less likely to report when victimized.
Lack of information is both about the resources available to survivors and the economic abuse itself. As one survivor confessed, “I didn’t even know that him controlling my finances was abuse because he had been doing it for so long.” When this woman finally left the relationship, she realized he had put her name on $200,000 worth of loans without her knowing.
Although this is a barrier for victims from all backgrounds, information is more easily accessible by privileged classes for reasons associated with education, community resources and access to technology.
Non-intersectional service is the third barrier. Said one woman about her difficult experience accessing services at a food bank: “People treat me like a caricature of a lazy, Black, homeless woman without understanding what I’ve been through and how hard I’m working,”
Discrimination faced by women of colour is accentuated when they also fit into other minority categories such as religion, country of origin, legal status and sexual preference. Of course, even wealthy Black women face microaggressions. In researching this article, one Black businesswoman explained how a social worker told her “post-traumatic-stress-disorder doesn’t happen to people like you.” From the banking sector to the housing sector, Black women experience prejudice when seeking support, making accessing services more difficult.
What can be done?
The good news is that knowledge about economic abuse is on the rise, especially with organizations like the CCFWE at the forefront. Equipped with a multi-disciplinary team ranging from top policy experts to mental health specialists to community activists, the CCFWE is pushing for economic abuse stories to be heard.
“We need new Canada-wide policies as part of the solution to creating meaningful structural change for women facing economic abuse,” Haileyesus says.
Beyond economic abuse advocacy, the CCFWE has a support group in Ottawa specifically for Black and minority women to discuss ways of coping with economic abuse. The organization plans to have another support group for survivors seeking to bolster their financial literacy. Other projects include developing a trauma-informed guideline for survivors, including a wellness program. Since victims are often left with credit scores that are too low to take out loans, the CCFWE is seeking partnerships with financial institutions and other non-profit organizations to offer small entrepreneurship loans. Finally, the organization is building a mentorship program and creating an online community of support.
Perhaps the best strategy is educating oneself about the warning signs and starting conversations with coworkers, peers and family. “The voice of survivors and lived experience is essential to guide us,” wrote Sandra Koppert, a member of the CCFWE Board of Directors. “We are stronger together.”
CCFWE is currently looking for members to join the National Working Group for Economic Justice and the 360 Expert groups. The goal of the 360 Expert groups is to provide women an opportunity to express their emotions, receive support from others who have experienced domestic abuse, understand the dynamics of economic abuse, learn coping skills and improve their self-esteem. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org