What is woman abuse?

Gender Spectrum Collection

What is woman abuse?

The term woman abuse describes any kind of abuse a woman is subjected to because she is a woman. This kind of abuse may also be called "gender-based violence", "family violence" or "gender-based abuse".

This abuse can happen in a woman’s intimate relationship (dating, common-law, marriage), in which case it may be called "domestic violence" or "intimate partner abuse".

Sexual violence, including sexual harassment and sexual assault/abuse is gender-based violence. The perpetrator of sexual violence could be the woman’s partner/spouse, someone she is dating, someone she knows at school, work or in the community or a stranger.

Woman abuse is intentional

The perpetrator uses abuse to gain and maintain power and control over the woman. He may do this by using physical or sexual force or by threatening to use that force. The abuser wants to control the woman’s behaviour by making her afraid. The abuse is not because the abuser has “lost control.” Most men who abuse women are not violent or abusive to other people. Alcohol use, stress and mental health issues do not cause a man to be an abuser but may trigger or exacerbate an abusive episode.

The United Nations General Assembly (1993) defines woman abuse as, “any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty whether occurring in public or in private.”

Woman abuse creates fear, can make the woman feel humiliated and gives the abuser power and control over the woman.

It can occur in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

A woman may be subjected to abuse by her partner during an intimate relationship, while she and her partner are breaking up or after they have separated.

Many, but not all, forms of woman abuse are against the law in Canada. It is a serious problem that occurs throughout society and has negative effects on the health and well-being of women, children, families and the community.

Tactics of abuse

Woman abuse is not usually limited to one act. It is a pattern of behaviour, involving a number of tactics. When it happens in an intimate relationship, the abuse usually follows a pattern and gets more serious over time.

The list below highlights the most common tactics of abuse in intimate relationships. In most situations, the woman is subjected to a combination of tactics. Whichever tactics an individual abuser uses, the goal is the same: to control the woman by making her afraid of him.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is the most obvious kind of woman abuse, but it is not the most common and is not necessarily the most serious. It includes such actions as:

  • slapping, shoving, punching, strangling, kicking, burning, stabbing and/or shooting
  • using a weapon or other objects to threaten, hurt or kill
  • abducting a woman or keeping her imprisoned

Sexual abuse/assault

Sexual abuse is any form of forced sexual activity, including:

  • rape/sexual assault
  • forcing a woman to watch or take part in pornography
  • ridiculing sexual performance or sexual organs
  • using weapons or other objects to penetrate
  • touching or acting in any way that a woman does not want
  • forcing or pressuring a woman into sexual acts
  • forcing a woman into prostitution

Psychological/emotional abuse

Many women say that they think psychological abuse is worse than physical abuse because it makes them feel humiliated and they lose their self-confidence. It can be difficult to explain psychological abuse to other people because there are no physical signs of it and the impact of it can last long after the abuse has ended. Psychological or emotional abuse includes:

  • verbal aggression/abuse including insulting a woman
  • belittling a woman through name-calling or descriptions such as “stupid,” “crazy” or “irrational”
  • stalking or harassing a woman
  • controlling a woman’s actions, time, dress, hairstyle, etc.
  • forcing a woman to do degrading things (e.g. eating cigarette butts or licking the floor)
  • forcibly confining a woman
  • engaging in deliberately threatening behaviours (e.g. driving dangerously or playing with weapons)
  • threatening to harm or kill children, other family members, pets or prized possessions
  • threatening to remove, hide or prevent access to children, or threatening to report the woman to the Children’s Aid Society
  • threatening to have the woman put in an institution
  • threatening to commit suicide
  • denying affection or personal care
  • taking away a woman’s mobility device, teletype writer (TTY), medication, hearing aids, or guide dog
  • leaving a woman without transportation or any means of communication, especially in isolated or rural communities
  • attacking a woman’s self-esteem in other ways

Social abuse

Social abuse is behaviour that takes place in front of a woman’s family, friends or co-workers or that is intended to isolate her from those people and can include:

  • putting her down or ignoring her in public
  • not letting the woman see her friends or family
  • making a scene or embarrassing her when she is with friends, family or co-workers
  • being charming with others and aggressive with her
  • embarrassing the woman in front of her children, using children as a weapon, not taking responsibility for children
  • placing limits on a woman about the people with whom she can talk on the phone or visit
  • cutting a woman off from friends and family


Stalking includes repetitive harassing or threatening actions that make the woman afraid. A stalker may be trying to get his partner back or may wish to harm her as punishment because she left. It can include:

  • harassing her at work
  • repeated phone calls, sometimes with hang-ups
  • following or tracking her
  • using technology to find her
  • watching her with hidden cameras
  • showing up where she is, at home, school, work, in the grocery store, at a movie, or in a restaurant
  • harassing her with unwanted emails, text messages or through social media
  • sending unwanted packages, flowers, cards, gifts, or letters
  • monitoring her phone calls or computer use
  • contacting her friends, family, co-workers, or neighbours to find out about her
  • going through her garbage
  • threatening to hurt her or her family, friends or pets
  • damaging her home, car or property
  • using the children as an excuse to repeatedly her or to show up where she and the children are (at the children’s school or day care, at their extracurricular activities)
  • engaging in legal bullying during family court proceedings

Legal bullying

Legal bullying is the use of family law/family court process to maintain power over and intimidate a woman. It can include:

  • dragging out the proceedings to wear the woman down emotionally or deplete her financial resources
  • refusing to sell the matrimonial home
  • delaying providing financial disclosure
  • appearing charming and conciliatory to the judge or other legal personnel and denying the abuse, raising questions about the credibility of the woman’s story
  • not allowing children to call home on access visits
  • acting as his own lawyer
  • making repeated motions over minor or inappropriate issues
  • using intimidation and threats if the woman doesn’t agree to financial arrangements that the abuser wants
  • pressuring her to accept mediation and joint custody arrangements or to trade away some legal rights (e.g. the right to property or financial support) in exchange for others (e.g. custody of the children)
  • contacting the woman out of court, claiming it is to talk about the case
  • threatening to obtain sole custody of the children if she insists on leaving
  • making malicious reports to the court and other officials (child protection authorities, police, housing personnel, Ontario Works, etc.) about the woman
  • threatening harm or death if the woman pursues legal proceedings
  • using stalking behaviours (property damage, excessive phone calls, phone threats and verbal abuse, phoning and hanging up, etc.), particularly if the woman takes a stand against what he wants
  • attempting to interfere in the professional relationship a woman has with her lawyer in an effort to reduce her confidence in her own lawyer
  • if he has been criminally charged, pressuring her to change bail conditions or to try to have the charges dropped
  • having her charged by the police

Immigrant abuse

Sponsored immigrant and refugee women as well as women who are in Canada with no legal status are especially vulnerable to abusive relationships. Some common tactics of abuse include:

  • threatening to have a woman deported
  • threatening to withdraw sponsorship
  • threatening to report her to the authorities
  • misinforming her about her legal status or the status of the immigration/refugee case
  • threatening to remove financial support
  • interfering with her ability to learn about Canadian laws, her legal rights and services that may be available to her
  • preventing her from attending ASL classes
  • telling her he will get custody of the children
  • threatening to remove the children from Canada
  • controlling her access to her passport or immigration papers
  • isolating her from her cultural, religious or linguistic community
  • threatening to harm her family in the country of origin

Economic abuse

Economic abuse includes any act or behaviour that gives the abuser the control of financial resources or maintains a woman’s financial dependence. It can include the following:

  • withholding money for basic necessities (e.g. food, clothing, diapers, medication, transportation, etc.) or for emergencies
  • forcing her to pay a disproportionate share of household expenses
  • preventing a woman from getting to work, controlling where she works, not allowing a woman to work, forcing her to work
  • spending or mismanaging family income, including a woman’s earned income and/or savings, and leaving her and the children with little or no money
  • controlling a woman’s spending, including where purchases are made, what is purchased, etc. and forcing her to account for and justify all spending
  • using credit cards without her permission and destroying her credit rating
  • obtaining credit or incurring bills in her name without her knowledge or consent
  • forcing her to turn over benefit payments or entitlements
  • denying access to education/training opportunities that may lead to increased earnings or employment
  • threatening to make false allegations about fraud to Ontario Works

Spiritual abuse

Some abusers use a woman’s spiritual or religious beliefs to control her. This could include:

  • punishing or ridiculing a woman for her religious beliefs
  • preventing a woman from practicing her religious beliefs
  • forcing a woman to practice certain beliefs and engage in rituals
  • putting down or attacking her spiritual beliefs
  • preventing a woman from going to church, synagogue, temple or other religious institution of her choice
  • forcing a woman to join and/or stay in a cult

Homophobic control/transphobic control

The abuser exploits societal homophobia/transphobia and the woman’s possible internalized anxieties about her sexual orientation/gender identity to further control her by:

  • threatening to “out” her to family, friends, employer, police, church or community
  • questioning or belittling her sexual orientation/gender identity
  • threatening to take custody because of her sexual orientation/gender identity
  • making homophobic/transphobic comments to the children
  • threatening her new partner
  • reporting her to child protection authorities for being unfit because of her sexual orientation/gender identity

Learn about Technological Abuse elsewhere on this website.


We use the term women to include all self-identified women (including two-spirited, cisgender or transgender women) 16 years of age and older.

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