Ask the Expert: How financial empowerment helps women escaping domestic abuse

This article originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on October 23, 2019. It has been edited and condensed for length.

Domestic violence is an #UNIGNORABLE issue faced by too many women in our community. Women trying to escape abuse can often become vulnerable to poverty and homelessness, which can make it harder for them to leave an abusive partner. One of the ways United Way agencies support women fleeing violence is by helping them to regain their financial well-being. We asked economist Samra Zafar, who wrote about her own experience leaving an abusive marriage in her bestselling memoir A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose, why supporting women to become economically independent is so important. Here the founder of Brave Beginnings ­explains how financial empowerment can help women experiencing and fleeing abuse.

What are some of the key things survivors need to achieve financial autonomy?

Number one is education. I know I could have left my marriage a lot sooner with a post-secondary education. I didn’t even have a high school certificate when I got married.

And having your own stream of income, where you can make decisions on how to spend it is extra important. It’s OK to be working together in a marriage and contributing to household expenses, but you need your own nest egg or source of income to maintain some independence.

It’s also good to have a financial planner or advisor who will help you think about future goals for yourself and your family. A planner can help women get a will and investments in place, for long-term security on a solo income.

Your organization, Brave Beginnings, supports survivors of abuse and oppression. What day-to-day money skills do you teach there?

Budgeting, because sometimes, in an abusive marriage, women have not had the experience of running a household budget. Financial control is one of the main types of control abusers use to keep them trapped.

I budget like crazy. Knowing what your income is and operating within that is so important, if you want to thrive. It’s so easy, when you’re a parent and your kids are pulling on your heartstrings, to feel pressure to spend more than you have, but you have to have your priorities and your goals.

How else might an abusive partner exert financial control and how do you advise women to protect themselves?

My husband was maxing out our credit card and making me sign joint loans with him. I actually had to sign a consumer proposal the year before leaving him. When I left him, I was in such dire circumstances: I was on OSAP [Ontario Student Assistance Program] and welfare, and I couldn’t even rent a place because of my poor credit. I’m still rebuilding my credit to this day.

Having lived that personally, I always suggest to women that they talk to their banker or advisor privately, if they’re facing these types of abuses, because it isn’t always easy to do with your spouse present. And you absolutely need to read what you’re signing and insist on independent legal advice. My husband signed over our matrimonial home to his mother and he had me sign for partner consent at the lawyer’s office. After we divorced, I had no recourse to what was in the home I’d lived in for 10 years.

If you’re mentoring a woman with little work experience and education, how do you advise her to generate an independent income?

There is always a way. I tell women, ‘Pick up a job on the side.’ One of my mentees right now is a student and I told her to pick up something on campus because she’s going there anyway to study. And there are jobs you can do from home, online, like tutoring kids.

I also recommend having multiple sources of income. When I was at University of Toronto, I was doing night shifts at the student centre—I could study there, because it was quiet at night. I was also working as a student mentor, a teaching assistant and a research assistant. I love cooking so I was cooking food and selling it to students on campus, too. These five jobs at the same time added up to my independence money. I’m a big believer in multiple sources of income because that provides a safety net.

The onus still seems to be on the survivor to create her own escape plan. How can employers better support women seeking financial security to flee abuse?

Companies need to create inclusive environments where women feel safe to speak up about what’s happening at home and don’t feel like it’s a career-limiting move, or that they’ll lose their job or be judged. There can be signs about domestic abuse and resources around the workplace; that shows female employees it’s OK to talk about these things here.

They can also train leaders to know what kind of language to use and what resources to point a woman to, if she comes forward. There can be people trained to help her build financial autonomy, for example to open a separate bank account and invest in an employees’ savings plan, so some of her earnings are set aside before they even show up on her pay cheque.

Employers can also make paid leave available to a woman who is trying to leave domestic abuse. It’s not only the right thing to do, because it could potentially save lives, it’s the smart thing to do. Companies would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year on rehiring, retraining and absences. And if you support someone on that journey, imagine the employee loyalty and productivity after that?

How can we be more supportive as a society?

When women come to Canada, they should be put into a mandatory course where they learn about their basic rights under family law and under violence law—what is abuse and what is not. They should learn how to access a lawyer and know there are shelters, food banks and resources in their community, so they will not have to worry about being destitute and on the streets if they leave.

And our school curriculums need to include topics like healthy relationships and abusive behavior, so our children and our youth can be more proactive, rather than doing damage control after abuse has happened. We need to teach our girls more life skills, with financial literacy being a big part of that.

When my eldest daughter turned 14, which is the minimum age you can work in Canada, I told her, ‘You’ve got to get a job.’ She got her first job at 15, in a bubble tea place. Now she has all kinds of money management skills. She knows what to do if she gets laid off and needs to find something else. And she knows how to deal with a difficult boss. She has skills that I maybe learned at the age of 35. My ex-husband was flabbergasted that she was working and asked if we needed money. But it was never about the money. I wanted to make sure she had those skills.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse, you can call Assaulted Women’s Helpline toll-free, 24 hours a day, at: 1-866-863-0511.

Ways you can help:


The workplace has changed…

Our guest bloggers this week are Daniele Zanotti, President & CEO of United Way Toronto & York Region and Elizabeth Mulholland, CEO of the national charity, Prosper Canada.

Growing income volatility is causing tough financial challenges and mounting stress for millions of Canadians, according to a new report by TD Bank Group. TD’s research found that unpredictable and variable income is associated with lower overall financial health for those affected, as well as lower financial confidence and increased financial stress.

Income fluctuations are tied to the rise of precarious employment in the changing labour market, as highlighted in United Way Toronto and York Region’s ongoing research. It shows that nearly half of all workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) are facing this new reality of precarious work. These workers are more likely to experience irregular income, suffer more anxiety, and have more difficulty making ends meet. This, in turn, undermines their family, work and social relationships and overall quality of life.

While the labour market has changed, our employment laws and income security policies have been slow to adapt. Most of these policies were developed at a time when standard, full-time permanent jobs were the norm, and they haven’t undergone major changes since.

A changing labour market doesn’t have to be a bad thing. To make it work for everyone though, we need a coordinated response by government, labour, employers and community organizations to ensure that those who are most vulnerable receive the supports and protections they need and policies are in place to mitigate negative impacts on people, households, businesses and communities.

This is why the Government of Ontario’s imminent response to the Changing Workplaces Review Final Report is so timely and critical. Keeping our labour markets dynamic and flexible, while also supporting people engaged in non-standard employment, requires new policy and institutional approaches.

Finding the right balance between competitiveness and job stability, and between the needs of employers and workers will not be easy. But Canadian employers have shown interest in learning more about the impacts of this new reality for their workers and are already engaged in discussions with organizations like United Way, KPMG and Prosper Canada to understand how businesses can also contribute to and benefit from a more secure workforce.

We are at an important crossroads for Ontario and leadership from all sectors is critical to building the momentum and support needed to modernize our employment standards and practices. If we can build consensus, work together, and move forward with purpose, we can get at the root causes of growing income volatility and reduce its financial and human toll on individuals, families, communities and our economy.

We look forward to the Government of Ontario’s proposed legislation later this year and a thoughtful, balanced agenda that builds inclusive prosperity for all Ontarians. With the right policies, we can help our businesses to thrive, while also enabling Ontarians to achieve the financial stability they seek and the ability, once again, to plan for and invest in the future they want for themselves and their families.

It will take all of us working together to develop a labour market that works for everyone, and we encourage the provincial government to exercise its leadership on this issue and set Ontario on the right course.