Welcome to Alright, Now What? a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder, “why is this still happening?” We explore systemic routes and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
Thanks for joining us as we launch into season six. I’m Andrea Gunraj from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Today’s episode features three of seven incredible speakers at The Walrus Talks Gender-Based Violence, presented by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, and held on November 16th, 2023.
Pamela Cross at Luke’s Place and Paulette Senior and Anuradha Dugal at the Foundation spoke to pressing issues and solutions to end gender-based violence. Listen to learn how we can become allies to survivors of abuse and work as agents of safety and care from the ground up.
A note about content: this episode addresses gender-based violence.
Imagine working closely with someone every day. Doing projects together, sitting side by side at your desks. Imagine starting out as coworkers and colleagues, and over the years, eventually becoming friends. Imagine her coming to work one morning with a saddened, tired face. Imagine her telling you that her partner hit her last night and she was so scared. She cried all night, but she came to work in a complete daze.
What would you do in this situation?
My name is Paulette Senior. I’m the President and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Thank you for joining us at this event.
So, if you’re not sure about how you would respond in a scenario such as this, if you’re nervous that you might say or do the wrong thing, you’re not alone. Many of us really aren’t sure how to respond when we get the sense that a friend or co-worker, or a colleague or family member is in an abusive situation. We’re not well equipped to respond to gender-based violence. Whether it’s intimate partner abuse, sexual assault and harassment, or domestic violence, it’s not something that we openly talk about.
So, no wonder we hold conflicting views about it. A Canada-wide poll by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that 90% of people believe everyone has a responsibility to stop gender-based violence. But at the same time, 23% of people say intimate partner violence is none of my business if it doesn’t directly involve me. So, there is a gap. There’s a gap between our anti-violence values and our competence and confidence to play an anti-violence role in real life.
In recent years, we’ve seen increased public awareness and accountability about abuse, abuse of women, girls and gender-diverse people, and it’s quite a common experience. But increased awareness might obscure the reality that many still view gender-based violence as an ugly, unmentionable topic that should actually stay behind closed doors. And perhaps we’re prone to assume abuse is a rare occurrence between dysfunctional people in dysfunctional circumstances, unlikely to happen to people we know and love. Maybe we go even further. Maybe we’re prone to judge those who face abuse, presuming they made the wrong choices to be in that particular position.
But our typical mental biases play out in our perceptions of abuse as much as anywhere else in life. Normalcy bias, for example, means that we don’t imagine abuse will affect us directly, even as it affects others. Optimism bias means the overestimate favorable outcomes, even in unsafe and dangerous situations. The valence effect causes us to think good things are more likely to happen to us and the people we love rather than bad things. The ostrich effect – burying your head in the sand – means we tend to avoid unpleasant information altogether.
Yet facts confront our biases head on. 44 per cent of all women in Canada experience psychological, sexual or physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Two thirds of people know a woman who has experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse. A woman or girl is killed by violence every 48 hours.
Remember, estimates of gender-based violence rates based on health care police reports underestimate its prevalence. Most of this abuse goes completely unreported.
The truth though is that for women, girls, and gender-diverse people – especially those vulnerable to racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, isolation and poverty – gender-based violence is not an exceptional experience. It happens all the time.
And even in our psychological or cultural denial, I believe deep down, we know this to be true. Because there’s an antithetical sense in which we understand the risk to women, girls, and gender-diverse people. We’re told to watch our backs, cover our drinks, not except rides, not party too hard, be out too late or dress too tight. We’re expected to be aware of our environment, know the right streets to stroll, travel in packs, grip our keys, wear sensible shoes, swipe carefully and don’t forget to notice the red flags. We’re told we need to defend ourselves or we’re not smart.
We live in deep, deep contradictions.
So, in the grip of under acknowledged high risk of gendered abuse, even higher for those of us who are marginalized, we’re expected to be warriors for our own safety. Be victimized people. But victimized people cannot expect to get safer all on their own.
Take it from me. I know what it’s like to be trapped in an abusive home because I feared for my life and that of my child. I know what it’s like to be at greater risk because I told him I was going to leave.
That’s why we cannot wait. We have to be proactive about building safety for abuse survivors. And we all have a part to play in transforming our culture, as you heard before, of stigma and silence about abuse to a culture of safety and support for those at risk.
The Canadian Women’s Foundation launched a Signal for Help when the COVID pandemic meant those being abused were trapped at home with their abusers. And as you heard before, it means that you need to check in with someone safely because they need help.
But within months, the Signal for Help spread across social media and the news like wildfire. And women and girls across the globe used it to get help in dangerous situations. But the signal is only as good as its response.
And just like we train people to do CPR, we knew we could train people to recognize signs of abuse and support their family and friends at risk so that they know they’re not alone. Over 50,000 people actually signed up to be Signal for Help Responders and counting. What can you do if you think your friend, family or coworker is going through abuse?
Be non-judgmental, let them know you will support them no matter what, ask them what they need from you, and follow their lead.
Second, know that local services, crisis lines, and employee assistance programs you can refer them to for more specialized help from experts.
Third, sign up at signalresponder.ca to get the tools, tips, and training to learn how to better support abuse survivors in your life.
So, imagine along with me what would happen if you did this, and you knew how to support that colleague when they turned to you for much needed support. Imagine if everyone in this room and in Canada and across the world made it their business to learn these skills. And finally, imagine with me the impact we could make and the stories we could change. Thank you.
I’m going to ask you to imagine as well.
I’m going to ask you to imagine a world in which that family wasn’t killed in Sault Ste. Marie two weeks ago.
A world in which four women in Ontario in the past week were not killed by men who said they loved them.
I want you to imagine the transformative change we have to make to create that world.
Good evening. My name is Pamela Cross, and I’m the advocacy director with Luke’s Place.
The term coercive control has entered the legal discourse relating to intimate partner violence or IPV, as I’ll call it, in Canada over the past few years. Coercive control is a pattern of behaviors including psychological, social, and financial abuse that gives one partner power and control over the other. It often doesn’t include any physical violence at all. Sometimes compared to gaslighting, it’s a particularly insidious kind of abuse. It leaves the victim feeling as though she’s the hostage of her partner. She steadily loses her autonomy, her entire sense of self in an atmosphere of constant fear and terror.
The term is now included in the definition of family violence that appears in family law legislation across much of the country, and it’s slowly beginning to have a positive impact on how judges make decisions about parenting arrangements in families where there has been IPV. Now there’s a push to create a new criminal offense of coercive control, as has been done in some other countries.
I don’t think this is the right direction to go. This is not transformational.
That’s certainly not what I would have said 30 years ago when I began representing women who had been victimized by gender-based violence. Then I was all for a criminal response. I wanted to see my clients’ partners charged and jailed. I thought that would perhaps send a message to the abuser that he should change his behavior. But even if it didn’t do that, putting him behind bars would, I thought, give her the space to find a safer life, validate for her that what had been done to her was wrong.
However, over time I came to realize that criminalizing IPV did none of these things. And as a result, I no longer think of the criminal law as a particularly helpful response. Applying it to IPV-related behaviours is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn’t fit for either the victim or the person who’s caused the harm.
Criminal laws work reasonably well for those who have developed them over the past few 100 years – straight white cis men with money and property and those with other kinds of privilege. They don’t work so well for and often cause more harm to the rest of us – women, gender-diverse folks, people who are differently abled, Indigenous people, people of colour, and poor people, to name just a few. Why would we expect anything different when Canadian criminal law is rooted in the misogyny, racism, classism, and colonialism of English common law?
We have only to look at mandatory charging policies in effect across Canada since the mid 1980s for evidence of how a policy intended to protect victims of intimate partner violence has actually been used to further harm those victims. This policy requires police to lay charges where there’s any evidence a domestic assault has taken place, whether or not the victim wants that to happen. Good idea in theory maybe, but it has backfired in its execution.
Some women have good reason not to want to engage with the criminal system. Others don’t want their partner to be criminalized. Mandatory charging removes the woman’s control over her situation. And in fact, sometimes charging the abuser makes life more dangerous for the woman. Finally, women, especially those from marginalized communities, find themselves charged when they shouldn’t be. This charge then follows them into family court, where it often has a negative impact on the parenting-related aspects of their case.
When I think about criminalizing coercive control – and the government is looking at a bill to do just that this very day – I think of the negative consequences of mandatory charging and that’s why I say no, let’s not do that again.
Consider these few questions:
Criminal law is single-incident focused, but coercive control is the opposite. It’s a pattern of incidents often extending over a long period of time. How likely then is it that charges will be laid and prosecuted, and judges will be able to make guilty findings beyond a reasonable doubt?
The players in the criminal system, from police to judges, lack adequate education on intimate partner violence. Given this, will they be able to apply and interpret a criminal offense of coercive control properly?
As with mandatory charging, abusers will manipulate the truth to convince the police that they, not their partner, are the victim. Does this mean that women will be inappropriately charged and face the consequences and challenges of that?
What if a woman does not report coercive control to the police? About 70% of women don’t report other kinds of abuse. Is that going to be used by her partner in family court to discredit her claims of violence?
Let me leave you with this thought:
We need to urge the government to abandon its thoughts about creating a criminal offence of coercive control. Instead, as the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission recommends, let’s embark on a society-wide discussion about finding different responses to intimate partner violence – responses that will hear and empower survivors rather than silencing and disempowering them; responses that will allow those who have caused harm to acknowledge what they have done, take responsibility for it, make reparation, and heal; responses that will build safe communities for all of us.
That’s how we move from responding to gender-based violence to building a world free from that violence. Thank you.
Unprecedented wildfires followed by devastating floods in eastern Canada, powerfully destructive fires across the country, rapidly melting permafrost in the North with a warming rate at least twice the rest of the globe.
I’m Anuradha Dugal at The Canadian Women’s Foundation.
What’s happening in 2023 is that we’re realizing we’re living in the era of polycrisis. Disasters overlap and mount like waves and sweep us in their tides. Perhaps we were naive before about the way this happens until the early, eerie days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on travel, shutdowns, stay at home orders, and curfews felt downright apocalyptic in 2020. We doom scrolled. We hung on the words of health officials we didn’t even know the names of before. We checked our feeds hourly for the latest infection and death rates.
Some of us feared the worst. In past disasters, those of us in women’s and community services had seen abuse rates increase and inequalities simultaneously deepen for women and gender-diverse people, especially the most marginalized women with disabilities, Indigenous, Black and racialized women, 2SLGBTQIA+ people, women in remote areas, just to name a few.
The 2008 global economic crisis, the 2013 floods in Alberta, the 2016 Fort McMurray fires, the list is endless, and it rolls on, and it gets longer every year. They led to higher rates of intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based violence. Although you didn’t always hear about it in the news.
Only one month into the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of violence against women and girls were called a global shadow pandemic by UN Women. The data came in from the US, from France, from Germany, from Japan, from Korea. In Canada, femicide rates bumped to reach today’s stunning level: a woman or girl is killed by violence every 48 hours.
Calls to police and crisis lines have surged and intimate partner violence has increased in intensity and severity and to add to the pressure, especially during the pandemic, those in precarious female-dominated service jobs, personal support workers, cashiers, cleaners were in a double bind. These often racialized and newcomer women would bear the brunt of greater risk of abuse at home on top of higher levels of illness and hardship at work. Even though the movement of the virus was unpredictable, its gendered impacts were not.
Disaster strikes, gender-based violence spikes.
But Canada’s emergency plans don’t disrupt the strike and spike pattern. They do nothing to prevent it. They simply do not account for the unique ways diverse women and gender-diverse people experience crises. A review of 28 regional plans found that just two refer to gender, just five mention women, and only two refer to domestic violence. At the municipal level, where much of our immediate response to disasters happens, a review of 24 emergency planning documents found no reference to women or gender at all.
This omission, this gender gap in our emergency planning, means that in times of crisis, those tasked with rolling out the emergency responses are neither attuned to nor trained to respond to the shared experience of more than half the population.
And local charities reported during the pandemic, months into it, when the disproportionate gendered impacts became just about impossible to ignore, local officials pressed them for opportunities to consult. But the thick of the crisis is the exact worst time to launch stakeholder consultations. It puts already overstretched community-based services under inordinate pressure while they scramble to close the gaps due to inadequate pre-disaster planning.
And as these shelters and services remained steadfastly open, stay at home orders failed to make this clear. Safety planning for gender-based violence was not a central part of the emergency response.
Now, fast forward to today. Municipalities and government leaders are declaring intimate partner violence a pandemic – an epidemic, excuse me, after the femicides and the fatal domestic violence such as what happened in Sault Ste. Marie. Some are vowing to marshal funding to victim services. It’s an important move.
All the same, our historic slowness to close the gender gap in crisis management continues to cost lives and leads to untold trauma. It leads us to some fundamental questions:
Who exactly are our emergency plans for?
Whose safety and livelihoods are we prepared and eager to protect?
Who do we choose not to concern ourselves with when we plan for the unexpected?
We have more than enough evidence to understand that crisis leads to gendered abuse and hardship. How is it that our crisis plans barely breathe a word of women, girls, and gender-diverse people?
It’s about time we answer these questions.
In the male-dominated field of emergency management and planning, consultation and collaboration with everyday women and marginalized people are exceedingly rare. This needs to change.
Our federal government prioritizes the consideration of gendered realities in financial support for emergency preparedness through its feminist international assistance policy. We need the same commitment for disaster and emergency response, domestically.
We need to invest in shockproofing our communities against gender-based violence so that when shocks of fire, flood, conflict, and outbreak strike us, spikes in abuse and femicide don’t happen.
A nuanced understanding of how human beings in all our diversities live through crises and their aftermath is overdue. Equitable responses that don’t leave anyone behind are the only way we’ll be able to get through. Thank you.
Alright, now what? Get educated on the facts about gender-based violence by visiting our fact pages on our website, canadianwomen.org.
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