Aftab Ahmed: Cash is a lifeline for domestic abuse survivors
As digital payments become the norm, Canada should enact legislation safeguarding cash acceptance, securing its role in helping protect vulnerable communities
By: Aftab Ahmed
Cash will make up only three per cent of point-of-sale transactions by 2025. A future devoid of banknotes and coins is increasingly a palpable possibility. But a recent Bank of Canada survey tells a slightly different story: Canadians are not at peace with the idea of cash vanishing into thin air, with a consistent 80 per cent of respondents having no plans to go cashless.
Consider also that over the past decade, cash has evolved beyond a simple transactional tool. Clutched onto like a safeguard against unforeseen emergencies, it remains a source of security and stability. Remember the nationwide Rogers power outage last summer, that made digital transactions impossible for many retailers? Now, imagine such a disruption lasting for more than a day. What if we were left without cash as a safety net?
Hence the paradox: Despite its declining everyday use, demand for cash is soaring — underpinning its status as a medium of exchange of last resort and as a trusted store of value. Beyond this, as Canada navigates towards a less-cash future, the perils of financial exclusion loom large. Overlooking the importance of cash to vulnerable groups, notably domestic abuse survivors, is short-sighted and discriminatory.
In 2019, intimate partner violence impacted 107,810 individuals in Canada — with 79 per cent of these being women. It requires no extraordinary insight to appreciate that the actual number of individuals affected is likely higher, given the chronic underreporting associated with domestic abuse. Even so, economic manipulation featured in a staggering 95 per cent of the reported cases. This subtle yet cruel tactic traps survivors in a cycle of dependency and instability, making escape seem almost impossible.
As one account puts it, the war on cash is a war on victims of domestic abuse. Financial exploitation takes disturbing, insidious forms, with abusers exerting ruthless control over their victims' finances. Abusers manipulate, deny, and withhold financial assets, plunging victims into darkness and compromising their economic well-being.
Exploiting the victim's financial portfolio to unlawfully secure credit or insurance, coupled with tracing their digital transactional footprint, imposes dangerous consequences on survivors — leading to outcomes such as ruined credit scores, restricted access to their own funds, and in extreme cases, insolvency.
Financial exploitation does not only pose an obstacle — it embodies a full-fledged life-altering barricade. Leaving abusive relationships often leads survivors to unstable housing and financial scarcity, mirroring the hardships faced within the abusive setting. But what makes it more sinister? Its invisibility. Societal norms and stigmas turn a blind eye, disguising this exploitation as “normal” financial disagreements — trapping survivors in abusive relationships. The price of freedom becomes a burden too great to bear.
Cash, in this scenario, becomes a weapon of empowerment, allowing survivors to regain some form of economic control and break the chains of abuse. For survivors, cash serves as a shield of anonymity, autonomy, and protection, enabling them to hide emergency funds from their abusers, granting them a chance of a safe escape when needed. Unlike digital transactions that can be controlled, locked down, and leave a trail, the physicality of cash creates a firm barrier against varying layers of economic manipulation.
That is why the switch to digital banking poses a significant risk for survivors. Their ability to hide financial assets diminishes online, while the physicality of cash provides a much-needed sense of security and control. Bank notes become an ally, promoting financial independence in an otherwise hostile environment.
For example, while banks incorporate staff training to identify and combat financial exploitation, they prioritize avoiding losses over tackling these issues head-on. Undeniably, this approach might be justified from a business perspective, yet it falls short of being ethically sound.
Consider a joint account under the dual-ownership of a victim and their abuser: banks require signatures from both account holders to change the ownership registration due to liability concerns. A sensible policy on paper, it becomes a roadblock for those trapped in abusive relationships. For survivors, this highlights the indispensable role of cash as a pragmatic solution in circumventing such challenges, particularly with financial institutions.
The bottom line is that a transition to a less-cash society, without appropriate stopgaps, will worsen the plight of survivors. Financial exploitation, already a prevalent concern, could escalate, as digital payment systems offer abusers a method to coerce, monitor and manipulate their victims' finances. This unfamiliar terrain becomes a hunting ground for predators, intensifying the vulnerability of survivors.
Warning bells sounded by the United Kingdom's Access to Cash Review Commission should serve as a sobering reminder: in our relentless pursuit of digital dominance, those who rely heavily on cash risk being marginalized. In our rush to digitize, must we revamp everything? Certainly not. Cash, though old-fashioned, holds its own in this high-tech era — remaining a secure buffer and a reliable financial vehicle. While not a daily necessity for most of us, its availability symbolizes a form of financial freedom that should remain possible for all who desire it.
The Bank of Canada has made it clear that it is not mandatory for businesses to accept cash — that it is up to individual business owners to decide what forms of payments they are willing to accept. This is a mistake. The Canadian government should introduce legislation guaranteeing the right of citizens to use cash.
Aftab Ahmed is a Master of Public Policy candidate with the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, where he is the Editor in Chief of the policy newsletter The Bell. He is a regular columnist for two major Bangladeshi media platforms and his interests lie in global affairs, international development, and political trends in the Asia-Pacific.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org