Episode Transcript

Lama Alsafi (00:00): Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World—where in 15 minutes or less, you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it.

Lama Alsafi (00:41): This month, we'll be bringing you four special episodes as part of our March4Women podcast series. Throughout the month of March, we'll be talking to four incredible women working in different sectors and with different areas of expertise to learn more about women's leadership here in Canada and around the world. As always you'll hear about how you can get involved by learning from, advocating for, and supporting women to lead. Our guest today is the incredibly inspiring Meseret Haileyesus, who is the CEO and founder at the Canadian Center for Women's Empowerment. Meseret is an economic justice advocate, a change-maker, an intersectional feminist, and an entrepreneur. Meseret thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. I'm really excited to have you as our guest.

Meseret Haileyesus (01:27): Thank you so much for having me.

Lama Alsafi (01:29): Thank you. Meseret, can you tell us a bit about the Canadian Center for Women's Empowerment and the work that you do?

Meseret Haileyesus (01:35): The Canadian Center for Women's Empowerment is a national organization based in Ottawa. We are dedicated to empower domestic violence and economic abuse survivors. So advocacy, mentorship, and economic empowerment. We are the only organization dedicated to raise awareness on economic abuse and transforming response to it. And then we work with collaboratively with a number of organizations, individuals, including survivors, to develop a comprehensive approach that enables, you know, survivors to recover from economic abuse and our programs address, you know, some of the critical gaps, especially the policy, which are preventing survivors from recovering and being economically secure and independent. So right now we have three programs. The first program is education awareness. Every year we host a national campaign to educate publics on you know, economy could be used. And usually our purpose is, to raise awareness specifically on this issue for survivors, financial institutions, policy makers, to show them the different economic challenge faced by, you know, survivors. And we have also a mental health and wellness program. We support survivors by finding the best way to take care of themselves. And we we are right now developing some kinds of a trauma informed guidelines to promote a healthy lifestyle. And the other program is focused on policy and research. So right now we are advocating for policy change that reflect what economic abuse is. Imagine limiting someone's ability to access money and support and monitoring someone's communication location. Even after you leave that relationship is all about economic abuse.

Lama Alsafi (03:37): We've heard a lot about the negative economic consequences of COVID-19 and how it's exposed and really widened economic and social inequality here in Canada and worldwide. Meseret, can you talk about the impact the pandemic has had on women in Canada and particularly the women that you work with?

Meseret Haileyesus (03:54): What we have seen from our work is the rapid increase in unemployment rate increase men's controlling behaviors towards, you know, their partners. So even as, you know, the government are spending a lot of resources, too on just unemployment and economic distress at the household level, but still this issue is, you know, it triggers the other partners to control into abuse more. So as you know, family violence, especially in racialized community and marginalized community it's a taboo, and also talking about money and finances, also a taboo. So the chance of having, you know, women to get economic abuse is like more even during this pandemic. And also we have seen a lot of people are reaching out and then to help that, but, you know, our capacity was limited even to address some of this stuff. COVID it hits everybody else. We know that, but women are disproportionally impacted, especially survivors.

Meseret Haileyesus (04:52): And also one of the challenges, even for most survivors is a mental health aspect. Some people, especially women, they may have a pre-existing post traumatic stress syndrome because of this, you know, violence and imagine COVID by itself it just keeps them somewhere. And then that's also, it's a huge impact even for us, for service providers and for advocates. And of course, one of even the challenge of like, you know, for women even to get the resources like the social support or it might be economic. Imagine if you don't have any laptop and phone access, computer and everything, it's very hard for women. And the other also aspect of this COVID is especially single mothers. As you know, the childcare cost is very high. It's very discouraging for a women to go back, you know, to work force because they have to take care of the child. And usually the government, they just give only $600 for single mothers. That $600 is not even enough for most women, you know, that's what we have seen. And in Ottawa, so what we seen is we have a shortage of food, especially food banks are sometimes running out to food. Some women they can't afford, you know, so this is a reality, and then it affects, you know, everything.

Lama Alsafi (06:11): Can you tell us more, Meseret, about the structural financial obstacles and barriers in Canada that hinder women's economic empowerment and specifically the economic empowerment of survivors of domestic violence?

Meseret Haileyesus (06:22): So one of the challenges is housing. So finding safe and affordable housing is a huge problem for survivors. And the second challenge is like limited access of money. Because of their abuser, especially survivors, they don't have the right even to access some of the financial assets, which is very hard for them to rebuild their life, because we don't have any system somehow in Canada to control and to help women. That's why my agency is right now advocating for this, so that women, they can kind of like, you know, start their own life shortly after they leave, especially the a shelter. And the other challenges, of course, mental health. You know, the mental health is very, very challenging for many people, especially Indigenous and Black community. You know there's a stigma associated to that and service is not even accessible. And the other challenge of course is like, you know, the legal system is also, it's a very complex, it's not accessible for most women, especially if you are victims of economic abuse, you may have assets with your abuser. You are not eligible to get some of the legal services. And the other challenges of course, is a banking system. So in Canada, right now the banking, most of the bankings right now, they don't have any family violence programs. For example, for a woman staying in a shelter, the bank, what they do is right now, if she skipped two, three payments, they will suspend their account. But that account, it may be associated with her abuser. So some abusers are smart. What they do is they don't touch physically, what they do is like they just take your bank information. They will commit a lot of fraud, theft and everything. But in Canada, we don't have a clear program right now. So my agency right now is creating this ecosystem to support the banks to develop a family violence program so that women still, they can protect it. And the other challenge, of course, some women, they may have a coercive dates. Coercive dates is it's all about like, you know, it damages their credit. And, it comes in make, it's more challenging to secure housing, buy a car or land a job. We believe that economic abuse is a systemic problem in our society, which we are severely lacking the infrastructure to address.

Lama Alsafi (08:49): Why do you think that Canada is behind in this area?

Meseret Haileyesus (08:52): That's a good question, actually. In Canada, I'm not a legal expert actually, but the family violence, even in the definition, we couldn't find a clear definition of economic abuse. It just, they put it like a general definition. We don't have a specific program. We don't have a national data for economic abuse. And also, we spoke to many agencies, especially frontline workers and people who work with violence against women organizations. So they don't have the capacity to provide all those tools because, you know, if you don't have any data and if you don't have any policy, if you don't have a financial abuse and economic abuse code of practice, it will be challenging. I think maybe that's maybe one of the reasons. And the other reason is also, there's a lack of awareness. So the awareness of economic and financial abuse, many women, even, they don't recognize. There's a huge lack of awareness. That's why we start this conversation. And right now we work and also we learn from many agencies, especially there is one agency United Kingdom, they do a lot of research on this aspect. They have interesting program to educate banks, to educate police, to inform also policy makers, even they are developing the financial abuse practice for the bank right now. So in Canada, we don't have that.

Lama Alsafi (10:13): Can you tell us Meseret, how does intersectionality relate to your work and why is it such an important part of the conversation when we talk about the challenges women face, and when we talk about the solutions to these challenges?

Meseret Haileyesus (10:25): Yeah, intersectionality, it's a way in which aspects of our identities like, it may be gender, race, class, location ability, and the life experience overlap to create, you know, discrimination and disadvantages. So of course, intersectionality allows us, especially for advocates, for program leaders, you know, to understand how a person or a group of people or social issues such as like gender based violence is affected by different factors that exist in unhealthy and codependent relationships, such as racism, sexism, colonialism, you know, there's a lot of things associated for that. So when these factors, you know, intersect, for example, a woman identified as Indigenous, she may live in remote area. So this woman may have increased risk of, you know, gender based violence. Because as you know, in 2018, the police also reported that the homicide rate for Indigenous women and girls was nearly seven times higher than non-Indigenous, you know, women right. So it's kind of intersectionality means, when addressing gender based violence, we must recognize of course, and most marginalized women, including Indigenous, racialized women, immigrants, refugees, women with disabilities, gender diverse people, and also girls and children. This enables us to design intersectional programs And plus it helps us to acknowledge and recognize that addressing the root cause of gender based violence and advancing equity, it's also one of our, priorities in our organization.

Lama Alsafi (12:09): Meseret, do you have a message for women who are listening today and for maybe to Canadian policy makers as well?

Meseret Haileyesus (12:15): Yeah. So for the survivors or victims of violence, I have one message actually. Look out the warning signs of economic abuse, put a plan together. If someone you are living with is, and also get information about your assets and liability before you leave that relationship. Get a copy of your car, house key, extra money, emergency phone numbers. And also if your partner controls the money, look for a way to find more information about his or his, his or her, income and financial property, real estate property, and also date. It's very, very important for a woman, you know, otherwise it would be very complicated for a woman if she doesn't have those kinds of things. And of course, it's also very important to get your copy of your credit report from any of the three major credit bureaus in Canada.

Meseret Haileyesus (13:06): And also if you have any questions, you can check our website, the Canadian Center for Women's Empowerment, www.ccfwe.org. For policy makers, economic abuse is, has to be recognized as a part of family violence. And we need to see the government to expand the federal strategic plan. We know that the national gender based violence strategy right now is implemented, which is very interesting, but we want to see economic abuse has to be included. We want to see an ecosystem for a woman to rebuild her life in any ways. It may be economic empowerment, it may be a scholarship fund for women. And of course the government also, start to think about on how we could address the coercive control. It has to be criminalized otherwise without criminalization and without taking an action, addressing this issue, it may not be, you know, we may not be successful. So that's what I would like to say. Yeah.

Lama Alsafi (14:06): And lastly Meseret, what can our listeners do to help empower women and advance gender equality, whether at home here at Canada or abroad?

Meseret Haileyesus (14:14): So for any Canadian, who's listening to this, in order to engage women, we need to take action from day one—today, not tomorrow. We can encourage our children. We can educate our women. We have to also encourage women to take some of the leadership role in our community. And never underestimate the power of women wherever you are. There are women, they may not have a voice. They may be in a trauma. They may be in an abusive situation. They may be in shelter. So that situation, it doesn't define who they are. So just try to recognize their situation. Let's support them, let's stop the stigma and discrimination, and let's help them, their mental health, what they have been through. Let's create them the opportunities. And finally for the policy makers, definitely gender equality, it needs diverse, and also it needs a collaborative effort. We need to engage banks. We need to engage, you know, advocates. We need to engage also survivors for any kind of intervention.

Lama Alsafi (15:15): Meseret Haileyesus, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Meseret Haileyesus (15:18): Sure yeah, it's my pleasure.

Lama Alsafi (15:20): Thank you to each and every one of you for tuning in as well. As always, you can stay up to date and share the latest episodes of 15 Minutes to Change the World on Spotify, iTunes and on care.ca/podcast.