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:


3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

5 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! We’re excited to share this list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live.

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1. Ratna Omidvar: Ratna knows firsthand the struggles of being a newcomer. Born and raised in India, she immigrated to Canada with her husband in 1981 with the hopes of a better life. After years of trying to find work as a teacher, the Order of Canada recipient eventually landed at St. Stephen’s Community House, a United Way–supported agency—and hasn’t looked back since. During her decades-long career in the non-profit sector, the founding executive director of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange has made it her personal mission to help immigrants settle and find jobs once they arrive in Canada. She’s become one of the country’s leading experts on migration, diversity, integration and inclusion and has championed several causes—including DiverseCity onBoard, an innovative program that connects people from visible minority and underrepresented communities to volunteer board positions. Ratna’s passion for her job —and her ability to mobilize community, corporate and labour partners in a common cause of caring and action—is truly awe-inspiring. Recently, her trailblazing efforts helped welcome hundreds of Syrian refugees to Canada by launching Lifeline Syria which recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups. “My work helps ordinary people on their way to success,” explains Ratna. “But what’s more, the work that I do helps Canada re-imagine itself in light of its new demographics, which shapes our identity, values and how our institutions behave.”

2. Hannah Alper: She may only be 13 years old, but this Richmond Hill resident has already demonstrated her ability to create big change when it comes to the world of charitable giving and social justice. When she was just nine, Hannah started a blog to share her growing concern for the environment. She wanted to show the world that doing little things can add up to make a big difference. Soon, she found herself on the speaking circuit, sharing her views on everything from animal rights to youth empowerment. She is an ambassador for Free the Children and ByStander Revolution and a Me to We motivational speaker. She’s also a bit of hero in her own community, where she received a student success award from the York Region District School Board for rallying her school to get involved in an international clean water campaign and local recycling program. Recently, Hannah was a speaker at a United Way of Winnipeg conference where she shared tips with youth leaders to make their communities better. “Take a look around you,” says Hannah. “Find your issue—that thing that you care about—and then get involved. There’s always a way to pitch in.”

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BERNARD WEIL / TORONTO STAR

3. Cyleta Gibson-Sealy: In this Toronto Star article, she was hailed as the “ticket out of poverty” for children in her Steeles-L’Amoreaux neighbourhood.  All because of a homework club she started almost a decade ago after a group of local kids asked for help with reading. Cyleta’s passion project grew so large and so popular that she eventually moved the “Beyond Academics” club to the ground floor of a community housing building at Finch and Birchmount. Today, you can find her helping local children with everything from reading and math to civic literacy and lessons on leadership. “She’s one of those special people who transform streets into communities,” writes the Star’s Catherine Porter. “She sees problems. But she devises solutions.” But that’s not all. In her spare time, the 54-year-old grandmother runs local baseball and soccer camps, started a parents’ club and sits on a community liaison committee. She says much of her community work was inspired by United Way’s Action for Neighbourhood Change that helps local residents create the kind of change they want to see in their community.

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4. Denise Andrea Campbell: Denise’s lifelong mission to create fairness and equity for all people inspires us. As the City of Toronto’s Director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research, she has worked tirelessly to champion poverty reduction and youth success strategies in priority neighbourhoods. In fact, she’s been working as a social change agent since she was 16 years old. She’s collaborated with federal cabinet ministers to create youth engagement programs, has advised on strategy for leading foundations including The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and has even worked internationally on race and gender policies in numerous United Nations forums. Most recently, Denise led the development of the city’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy. “In order to level the playing field, we need to pay attention to those that are most vulnerable and most distant from opportunity,” explains Denise. “That means changing our policies, our programs and even our perspective to support these Torontonians and ensure they have access to the opportunities all people deserve.”

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5. Julie Penasse: For years, Julie Penasse struggled with poverty, abuse and addiction.  But with a whole lot of perseverance and a little help from a United Way–supported agency, she turned her life around. But that’s just the beginning of Julie’s inspiring story. Ever since, she’s been using her personal experience to help others—influencing social policy by ensuring the unique voice of women living in poverty is heard throughout the community. Most recently, she was a key contributor in the city’s community consultations on poverty reduction where she inspired other women to share their stories and advocate for what they need most—things like stable work, affordable housing and childcare. “When you better the woman, you better the world,” says Julie. We couldn’t agree more.

Inspired by one (or more!) of the women on our list?  Send a note of encouragement to uweditor@uwgt.org and we’ll pass your message along.