Domestic violence against women is a global scourge. It comes in many forms across the world, but follows similar patterns of physical, sexual, emotional and economic abuse, among others. This resonance is highlighted by the 67 million Netflix accounts that binge-watched the TV show Maid over the past months. The show, inspired by Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive”, puts the audience in the shoes of a mother trapped in an economically and emotionally abusive relationship. It brings to life the devastating effects of economic abuse and gave prominence to a sad reality endured by numerous women worldwide.
Keeping with one of this year’s themes for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence “Domestic violence and the world of work”, we want to draw attention to the least acknowledged form of violence against women: economic violence. Other types of abuses -sexual, emotional, or physical violence- are more commonly recognized and acknowledged, unlike economic violence. Legislation on domestic violence has been focused mainly on physical abuse, while economic abuse, which involves behaviors that control a woman’s ability to acquire, use, and maintain economic resources, is often overlooked. This relatively invisible form of domestic violence is extremely harmful since it threatens a woman’s economic security and potential for self-sufficiency. As a result, women are left without financial resources that could have otherwise helped them escape an abusive home and live independently. Economic abuse can take many forms, from reducing someone’s access to savings and assets, and damaging property, to refraining from making rent or mortgage payments, or sabotaging employment.
The recognition of economic abuse as its own unique form of violence against women is recent. Until a decade ago, economic abuse was usually included as a subset of psychological abuse, if even mentioned in domestic violence legislation. Currently, while almost 85% of countries worldwide have enacted legislation on domestic violence, less than 60% have also targeted economic abuse, according to data collected by the Women, Business and the Law project. For instance, in March 2021, Canada enacted a new Divorce Act which specifically includes financial abuse in the definition of family violence. Similarly, Liberia’s domestic violence law introduced in 2019, sets out a comprehensive definition of economic abuse which includes deprivation of household necessities, failure to make rent payments, destroying or damaging property, and payment of school fees for minor children.
Figure 1 - Economies that protect women against financial abuse.
Source: Women, Business and the Law database.
One of the hardest issues to overcome for victims of financial violence, is the ability to survive without depending economically on their aggressors. Therefore, not having economic support makes it harder for abused women to leave violent relationships and increases the risk of returning to the violent cycle. Here is where protection orders become fundamentally important. As measures aimed at providing immediate protection to survivors of violence, protection orders that mandate the aggressors to continue providing financial support to survivors - including the payment of rent, mortgages and other expenses - are key to pulling survivors out of the cycle of violence. This financial assistance guarantees that victims can afford housing, childcare and health insurance (among other basic necessities), providing them with the stability they need to regain control of their lives and be free from the cycle of violence. To provide better safeguards for victims of domestic violence, the legislation needs to ensure that women have access to protection systems that alleviate the financial stress derived from these abusive relationships.
To better understand the lack of protection covered by domestic violence laws, Women Business and the Law started measuring whether countries establish protection orders that mandate the aggressors to provide for financial or monetary compensation to the survivors. Specifically, these measures require the aggressor to continue paying rent, mortgage, alimony, childcare and other expenses. Good practice examples include Albania’s Law on Measures Against Violence in Family Relations of 2006, which allows courts to order the perpetrator to leave the shared home and pay rent for the permanent or temporary residence of the survivor of domestic violence. Despite the clear importance of providing for protection orders granting financial support, out of the 114 economies with legislation on economic violence, only 65 provide these types of safeguard measures in their legal system, according to data that Women, Business and the Law has collected.
More work needs to be done to provide women with protection against financial violence. While several countries have taken up this issue in the last few years, much more is still needed to comprehensively protect women against economic violence. Remembering the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence’s theme, it is highly important to affirm that without the legislative recognition of economic violence and the inclusion of financial support in protective measures violence against women will stay unresolved. To end violence against women, policymakers and other relevant stakeholders must foster a legislative environment that ensures economic freedom by shielding women and girls from a pattern of economic violence.