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How financial empowerment helps women escaping domestic abuse

Economist Samra Zafar was once a child bride. Now she mentors abuse survivors rebuilding their lives

samra Zafar sat crying. “I don’t need this. I don’t deserve to live,” she said to her friend. Zafar had just returned from begging the father of her two daughters to take her back, and now she felt ashamed.

Returning to an abusive man was a step Zafar felt compelled to take because financially and emotionally, she felt trapped. When she was a teenager living in the United Arab Emirates, Zafar wed in an arranged marriage. She and her husband moved to Canada to begin married life and she soon became the stay-at-home mother of two daughters. But over time, her husband became increasingly abusive, both emotionally and physically. Ten years in, feeling hopeless, Zafar began to do tutoring and childcare jobs, so she could save up to further her education. Making some money of her own turned out to be a critical first step on the road to escape.

While Zafar was at University of Toronto, she accessed the supports she needed to leave—and stay separated from—her abuser. The first few months were extremely difficult: Zafar was shamed by extended family and her cultural community in Mississauga. Married men sexually harassed her and justified their behaviour, saying she should be grateful for their advances, now that she was “used goods.”

“It made me feel like, if this was what the rest of my life was going to look like, maybe I’d be better off returning to my husband, because at least he was the father of my children,” Zafar says.

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Instead, she went to the police to report her abuse and she left her marriage for good. Afterwards, the support of friends and counsellors helped her find strength. She focused on her daughters and studies, ultimately graduating top of her class with a master’s degree in economics. She won more than a dozen academic awards and scholarships, including a prestigious $17,000 prize, awarded to the most outstanding student in the entire university. Today, she is a director at the Bank of Montreal. And she’s paying it forward by mentoring abuse survivors in financial literacy and other survival skills.

Her desire to mentor others was sparked in 2017 when her story went viral and she became a public figure. That led to international public speaking appearances and her bestselling book, A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose. The moving responses—and requests for advice—inspired Zafar to mentor dozens of the women who reached out to her.

Now Zafar is taking her mentorship further. Along with several like-minded professionals, including a lawyer, an accountant and marketing specialists, she created a non-profit called Brave Beginnings to reach more women in the Greater Toronto Area. “I especially enjoy helping women who are racialized or marginalized,” she says. “It’s rewarding to see that with coaching, these women have been able to start businesses or go back to school and build their self-confidence. So, I thought: What if this could be done on a larger scale?”

As the organizations awaits charitable status—hopefully for next year—they’re developing a formal mentorship program, with a focus on finances. Their mission is to support women rebuilding their lives after any kind of oppression. Here Zafar explains how financial empowerment is so critical to women escaping domestic abuse.

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Q: How will Brave Beginnings work?

A: It will be like a Big Brothers Big Sisters type of a program, but for abuse survivors. The power of human connection is absolutely crucial to surviving, healing and thriving, because one of the biggest tools that abusers use is isolation. Our clients will be survivors, ready to embark on a new life. Our mentors will be women who are empathetic and willing to champion someone. They will be paired for coaching based on matching criteria like career goals, ethnicity, language, geography.

Q: 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.

Q: What day-to-day money skills do you teach?

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.

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

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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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

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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?

Q: 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.

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