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Researchers behind a new report looking at the role of financial abuse in intimate-partner violence cases are calling for more study of the issue in Canada, saying there is broad recognition of the risks with the problem but little understanding of its depth.

Financial abuse can mean anything from withholding money or financial information (such as bank-card PINs or online-banking logins), to building up debt in a partner’s name or closely supervising spending. It can also include disrupting or sabotaging a partner’s ability to secure education or employment, according to the researchers at the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto, who authored the report.

“Like other forms of violence against women, financial abuse is used as a tactic to harm and control," the report says. "It is often used by the abuser to increase the survivor’s dependence on them through isolation, monitoring their movements and activities and depriving them of any financial independence.”

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In the United States, the report notes that research has shown 94 per cent to 99 per cent of women in abusive relationships have reported experiencing financial abuse.

“We need to understand it better here in Canada,” says Lieran Docherty, program manager at WomanACT, a policy and planning body that focuses on women experiencing violence and their families.

In a policy context, the report notes that women’s economic security is often examined separately and in isolation from violence against women, even though financially controlling behaviour is often intertwined with other forms of abuse. As a result, Ms. Docherty says this will be a focus of their research and policy work over the next four years.

This initial research project was relatively small, she acknowledges. It included interviews with 14 women who have experienced financial abuse in the past five years. A total of 55 surveys were completed by service providers in the Toronto area, and a total of 17 participants engaged in service-provider focus groups. But it is an important first step, Ms. Docherty says.

“We have just scratched the surface. There’s still a lot of work to be done on awareness, education, also around system and policy change,” she says. “That’s what really we’re hoping to tackle over the next couple years is really start to see those changes at a community level, a service level and hopefully at a policy level as well.”

More and more, Ms. Docherty says service providers are hearing from women leaving abusive relationships that their finances are what they’d like to tackle first – “because that’s what’s going to [support] them in leaving.”

Through interviews and surveys, they heard from women whose partners had destroyed or withheld documents that they would’ve needed to open a bank account or apply for financial support.

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Marlene Ham, executive director of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), agrees financial abuse can be overlooked.

“There really hasn’t been too much research on the topic, I think because much of our policies and systems are really constructed around the criminality of domestic violence,” she said, citing the examples of assault, harassment and stalking.

In many social circles, that information is often still considered to be private, Ms. Docherty agrees: “It’s still very taboo to speak about money arrangements, family money, how much people make, what your financial arrangements are.”

Ms. Ham says her colleagues see this frequently in the family-court system, with abusive partners intentionally dragging out cases for the purpose of depleting a woman’s financial resources.

One of the WomanACT’s recommendations is to start collecting data on financial abuse as a form of intimate-partner violence. They also stress the importance of awareness, and access to financial literacy programs.

“Yes policy is important, but we need policy implementation as well,” Ms. Docherty said. “We need to ensure that social assistance policies, housing policies, are not only supporting a woman’s safety but promoting her economic security as well – because those two things go hand in hand.”

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