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How the pandemic is making women more vulnerable to economic abuse

Photo showing sterling pound notes and coins.

The economic fallout of this pandemic is undoubtedly hitting women the hardest, with increased unpaid caring and domestic responsibilities, the prospect of losing already precarious and low-paying work, and the hurdles that exist when accessing social security. A hidden consequence of these inequalities is a higher risk of experiencing economic abuse and a worse experience for those already living with it.

Economic abuse is a common, yet often invisible, form of abuse that seeks to control and isolate their victims economically, thus diminishing their opportunities to leave the abusive situation. It primarily affects women and it usually happens within the context of domestic abuse; although it can also occur in other situations, for example, when a woman is being sexually harassed at work.

Like any form of abuse, economic abuse can look very different for every person and it comprises a range of tactics including: retaining the victim’s salary or giving her an ‘allowance’, forbidding her from accessing work and education, restricting access to her private and shared bank accounts, and convincing or forcing her to take on debt on behalf of the abuser, among many other.

While economic abuse was a reality for many women before the Covid-19 outbreak, the economic dependency resulting from this crisis combined with the isolation produced by lockdown measures have created the conditions for perpetrators to continue or increase the abuse.

As organisations like Engender and Close the Gap have shown, women have historically experienced disparity in the labour and economic markets. For instance, women are disproportionately responsible for care, overrepresented in low-paid and precarious jobs, and their needs are not being fully met by social security. The fact that these inequalities remain unresolved means that women are more likely to face poverty and financial dependency during the pandemic.

Since the current crisis started, many women in self-employed and low-paying jobs have lost their income without access to the furlough scheme or to alternative employment. Without money for basic sustenance, they depend on others to survive and they might find themselves unable to afford the tech they need to get support.

We are also seeing an increase in women requesting social security, but with Universal Credit payments going to a single household member, it is easy for abusers to control the little money women might be getting. There are also those who are not even able to access benefits: women with irregular immigration status or with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (which includes those with spousal and student visas, and asylum-seekers) are facing the double threat of depending on their abuser for money and for their immigration status.

In other words, the pandemic is making women rely on their abusers more than ever for basic survival. It’s making them face the choice between poverty and staying with the abuser, a dilemma that no one should ever have to face.

Economic abuse shows how interconnected gender inequality and violence against women are. And indeed, any meaningful change for this and all forms of abuse cannot be achieved without overhauling the systems that have led to these inequalities in the first place.

In recent years and months, organisations and activists have been raising awareness about the causes and consequences of economic abuse and its particular impact during Covid-19. For instance, Surviving Economic Abuse has been highlighting the range of ways in which women might experience economic abuse. On the other hand, Close the Gap and Engender have been campaigning for economic recovery measures that take into account the multiplicity of issues that women face and which are ultimately needed to achieve women’s equality in the economic and labour markets and in all other aspects of their lives.

Significant progress was also made in 2019 when Scotland introduced a new Domestic Abuse legislation. This law criminalises coercive control and covers financially and economically abusive behaviours, giving women more alternatives and protections against this type of abuse.

To add to these efforts, our Centre has published a guide for victims/survivors living with economic abuse in Scotland, which explains some legal and practical steps they can take. We hope that the publication of this guide will not only raise awareness of the prevalence of a form of abuse that can often go unseen, but that it will give victims/survivors options to move on with their lives.

If you are experiencing economic abuse or any other form of domestic abuse contact Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline on 0800 027 1234 (open 24/7). For legal advice, contact the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre helpline on 08088 010 789 (see opening times here).

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