While much has changed in the 29 years since the massacre of 14 women at L’École Polytechnique simply because of their gender, violence against women remains a Canadian epidemic.
Much of that violence happens not at the hands of a stranger, but is committed by boyfriends, husbands and ex-lovers inside the one place women have come to trust — their homes.
You don’t have to look far for the horrific evidence. In December 2017, a pair of unrelated yet equally shocking family violence tragedies sent shockwaves through British Columbia. On Dec. 21, a man was charged with murdering his wife and two children in Kelowna two days earlier. And on Christmas Day, a Victoria man allegedly killed his two young daughters.
Family violence — predominantly perpetrated by a man against a woman — accounts for more than a quarter of all violent crime reported to B.C. police. What’s scarier is that the extent of the crimes is much worse: Statistics Canada estimated that a staggering 70 per cent of domestic violence incidents are not reported to police.
Last year, Rise Women’s Legal Centre, a community legal centre for self-identifying women where I work as a legal researcher, began a three-year research project (with support from Status of Women Canada) on how the legal system can improve its response to family violence.
Central to this research were first-person interviews with survivors of family violence who were going through the court system, most often over custody disputes.
The women Rise interviewed shared harrowing stories of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by their partners. One woman told us about an incident where the father of their son ordered the young boy to pee on the mother’s belongings. Another woman said it was by sheer luck her husband didn’t kill her, given the many times he had tried.
Women shared experiences of financial abuse, where the men controlled all the family finances and would restrict the women’s access to money, including their own salaries, making it impossible to get groceries to feed the children.
The severity of family violence is compounded for women with intersecting oppressions. In Canada, Indigenous women experience the highest incidence of partner violence. Women who have immigrated to Canada may depend on the partner who sponsored them to maintain their status. Women whose first language is not English are trying to navigate a legal system which has a language of its own. Members of the LGBTQ community and women with disabilities also have an elevated risk of experiencing domestic violence and markedly few safe resources for support.
By the time a woman comes before the courts in cases of family violence, she has already been doing everything she can to keep herself and her children safe — often for a very long time.
When women make it into the court system, their problems, while different in nature, often deepen. Because only a fraction of women unable to afford a lawyer qualify for legal aid — and those who do use up their allotted hours with a lawyer before concluding a single hearing — women are often forced to represent themselves. Meanwhile violent men often use litigation itself as a control tactic.
Despite decades of research showing high rates of violence toward women by men, there continues to be a prevailing myth that women’s accounts of male violence are invented or exaggerated.
These harmful stereotypes often lead to family violence being downplayed in legal proceedings. Many women Rise interviewed said their lawyers advised them not to speak about the violence in court because “…it just ends up making moms look bad.”
In one case, a lawyer told the client that she shouldn’t “play the victim” when she wanted to disclose medical records showing her husband broke bones in her body.
So what can be done? Rise’s top recommendation is to implement rigorous training on family violence for all players in the legal system. The training should be long lasting, comprehensive and mandatory for anyone working with family law cases. As with most public policies aimed at enacting real change, this recommendation will not produce instant results. But it can be part of change.
In addition to the abuse, prejudice and sexism the women Rise interviewed encountered, they also experienced vivid moments of kindness by people who truly understood family violence. Throughout the interviews, Rise heard stories that showed how one person could have a positive impact. Whether it was a police officer, an advocate, a lawyer, a counsellor, social worker, judge, clerk, or someone working at the registry court office, women talked about people who showed compassion. In many cases, these people helped the women persevere.
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