We believe that an end to violence against women and gender inequality is possible. Over the past two decades, reports and plans have filled bookshelves, filing cabinets and hard drives. These documents have been generated through community-based and academic research, though project evaluations and through government consultations. Many of these reports have been informed by the hard-won expertise and insights of anti-violence organizations, feminist activists and women who have personally experienced gendered violence. Some have included excellent analysis and powerful recommendations, but implementation has consistently been spotty at best.
Women in British Columbia have waited too long already. That is why we are offering 31 things that BC’s new Provincial Office of Domestic Violence (PODV) can push for right now to increase safety for women and to bring us closer than we have ever been to ending violence against women once and for all. We are calling for 31 social, economic and legal changes, none of which are unachievable in this province. Some would require very little financial investment, and each of them will save resources in the long term given the high costs of violence against women.
We chose March to put forward these practical recommendations to mark International Women’s Day and to honour BC’s long and vibrant history of feminist activism. Everything we are proposing is built on a solid foundation laid by women who came before us and by women across the province who continue to work tirelessly to put an end to gendered violence and to achieve substantive equality for women. We have already sent the full list to PODV. Over the coming month we will be releasing one thing BC can do each day. We are inviting women and men who believe in a world without gendered inequality and violence to join us in tweeting, posting to facebook and otherwise sharing one thing that BC can do to end violence against women each day for the month of March.
WAVAW is a member of the The Jane Doe Advocates Group; the members of this group are working together to highlight the 31 social, economic and legal changes to end violence against women. Find our more about the Jane Doe Advocates Group via twitter @janedoelegal and the website
Language shapes the way we view the world. It also shapes the way we act within it.
According to statistics Canada, approximately 83% of all police-reported domestic assaults are against women and over 80% of victims of dating violence are women. The severity and frequency of violence against women who report spousal violence is also much higher that violence reported by men, with women being three times more likely than males to report that they had been sexually assaulted, beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or a knife by their partner or ex-partner during an assault. Yet, “violence against women” is disappearing from policies, legislation and public discussions and being replaced by gender-neutral terms like “domestic violence” and “partner assault.” This linguistic shift erases the gross disproportionality and qualitative difference in gendered patterns of violence.
When talking about gendered violence and power-based crimes, euphemisms and legalese allow us to remain comfortably detached from disturbing truths —the truth that assault is not a “dispute,” rape is not “sex” and sexual harassment is not “joking around.” When we shift our language in law, in policy, in the courts and in everyday life we make systemic problems visible and open up the possibility for identifying appropriate solutions.
BC’s Violence Against Women in Relationships (VAWIR) policy sets out clear guidelines for professionals, including police, Crown, probation officers and child protection workers to follow when responding to violence against women. Without oversight and monitoring for consistency, the VAWIR policy is just words; it is necessary to ensure adherence to these policies by all relevant ministries, agencies and departments through an auditing process. In so doing, practice issues, service gaps, and inconsistencies among regions can be documented and solutions developed to ensure that these policies are followed effectively, in women’s best interests.
When a woman flees a violent or abusive situation, whether for a night or for a lifetime, there are often immediate financial needs that must be met to ensure safety for her and for her children. Women survivors of violence should be not be dually burdened with surviving on the streets. Accessible transitional housing, crisis grants, short term income assistance, child care and transportation may be the deciding factors in whether or not a woman and her children can escape a dangerous situation. BC’s VAWIR policy should be updated to explicitly address protocols for financial assistance workers, transition houses and BC Housing. The Residential Tenancy Act should also be amended to ensure that women are not locked into an abusive relationship out of fear of the costs associated with breaking a lease.
Over the past decade, legal aid in BC has been drastically reduced, compromising access to justice and the rule of law. Family law services have been particularly restricted, with dire consequences for many women. Without publicly funded legal advice and representation, women are compromising their rights in order to avoid costly trials or having to self-represent against an abusive, and possibly represented, former partner. If BC is serious about tackling violence against women, women must have access to the supports they need, which requires a fully funded legal aid system.
Apart from the fact that anti-violence work is urgent and relevant everywhere in our society, it is especially vital in secondary schools, where the highly gendered nature of violence is often obscured by all-encompassing terminology. The term ―bullying for example, can mask sexism, racism, homophobia, and violent crimes like sexual assault. Failing to name forms of violence for what they are makes them, and their victims, invisible. Zero tolerance policies can further alienate victims and leave bystanders feeling helpless, because they are armed with knowledge of the problem but not the solution. By educating emerging generations, it is possible to replace harmful belief systems with a focus on equality, dignity, and respect for all women. This education could address gender inequality from many angles by emphasizing the systemic and intersectional reality of oppression and by encouraging the development of skills required to stand-up in the face of oppression. By teaching young people that women are valuable, we can send the message that violence against them is unacceptable.
BC has taken an important step in creating the Independent Investigations Office (IIO) to investigate cases involving death or serious harm at the hands of police. Unfortunately, the IIO does nothing to ensure the safety of women who have been sexually assaulted by police officers, or to protect partners who have experienced violence at the hands of officers. Society and the police recognize that there are conflicts of interest when an insular group of people investigates itself and sexual violence should not be treated differently. There is also a need for a mechanism for women who are victims of violence, abuse or harassment at the hands of a police officer, either inside or outside of an intimate relationship, to report that violence without going to the local police force.
Poverty disproportionately impacts women–particularly indigenous women, women with disabilities, immigrant and refugee women and other marginalized groups. Single mothers are drastically over-represented among people living in poverty and 64% of minimum wage earners are women. Poverty rates for single mothers nearly tripled from 1980 to 2006, so that today more than 35% of single mothers live in poverty, compared to 9.3% of two parent families and 12.7% of men. Among seniors, women are twice as likely to live in poverty.
BC needs to:
- design and commit to a real anti-poverty plan to address our shocking levels of child and family poverty;
- legislate for pay equity in work sectors traditionally dominated by women, such as nursing and home care;
- provide adequate social assistance rates and living wages that adjust for inflation;
- provide quality, affordable family housing, and
- provide universal daycare.
A hate crime is a crime motivated by hate, not vulnerability, where the offence was motivated by bias, prejudice. Sections 318 and 319 of Canada’s Criminal Code deal with hate crimes, including publicly stirring up or inciting hatred against an identifiable group. Hate crime laws can be invoked when the crime was based on colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. BC should push to have gender explicitly included in these hate crime provisions.
In the 1990s, BC supported a network of regional coordination committees for women’s safety. Regional coordination involves meetings between non-profit and government services that work with women who have experienced violence and collaboration on specific cases, where appropriate. Meaningful coordination requires funded facilitation, and that key players such as representatives from Crown Counsel, the local police, the Ministry of Children and Families, the Ministry of Social Development, and probation officers are mandated to attend. Regional coordination committees are a proven way to ensure that service providers are meeting frequently and regularly to build relationships across sectors and to ensure the safety of women and children.
Hundreds of Indigenous women and girls have gone missing in Canada in recent decades, the same women and girls whose sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and friends remain highly vulnerable to violent victimization and abuse. BC’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which concluded in late 2012, failed to address the nationwide crisis of missing and murdered First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls, or to effectively include the voices of affected communities. A national inquiry is needed in order to uncover systemic factors that contribute to this vulnerability, and to address the scale and severity of the violence faced by Canada’s Indigenous women and girls.
Women’s organizations have been involved in feminist anti-oppression work and have advocated for women’s rights for more than two decades. These organizations are the experts in the fields of prevention and response to gender-based violence. These organizations hold unique experiential knowledge because their work is grounded in the day-to-day realities of women’s experiences. Women’s organizations have the expertise and knowledge to assist women to leave abusive partners. Currently, there is a high demand for access to counsellors and other services these organizations provide, but there are long wait-lists. Several women’s organizations have a six-month to a year wait list to access the “Stopping The Violence Programs.” In addition, there are few funded legal advocates in the province and organizations like Battered Women Support Services have a two to three week wait list for women facing urgent legal issues. Increased funding will mean that women can access the support they need immediately. Financially supporting these organizations will yield optimal return on investment.
The issue of women with outstanding warrants or who engage in illicit activities making the choice not to call the police for help because they fear they will get arrested is a longstanding concern, which was addressed most recently in the final report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Women who are living with addictions or who otherwise engage in criminalized activities as a means of survival are incredibly vulnerable to violence and are among the most in need of police protection. BC’s Director of Police services must issue a directive to police forces across the province to develop policies to ensure that women who call police for protection or to report violence do not have to fear arrest because they are involved in an illegal activity or because they have an outstanding warrant for a non-violent crime or administrative offence.
Psychological testing is widely used during parenting capacity assessments, which are conducted in most child protection matters and some custody and access disputes. Many of the tests that are commonly used were developed for use in clinical settings, and have not been shown to be valid for predicting parenting capacity. Women who have experienced violence and abuse are vulnerable to inappropriate mental health labeling and diagnoses that do not account for the impact of violence on their health. The lack of standardized guidelines for the preparation of these assessments and absence of mandatory violence screening tools compound the problem. A province-wide review of the impact of these assessments is necessary to develop recommendations that will ensure women’s rights, and those of their children, are being respected in these important cases.
Research suggests that well-trained and supported specialized Crown Counsel dramatically improves women’s experiences with the criminal justice system. In cases involving intimate partners, Crown specialization either inside or outside of a more comprehensive domestic violence court has been shown to be an effective way of supporting victims and enhancing offender accountability.
The courts have yet to formally, and in a precedent setting way, recognize sexual assault as form of systemic discrimination against women. Despite the fact that the BC Crown policy manual directs crown to ensure all risk factors are communicated to the court to protect the victim and public, to assign these files early and when possible ensure they are assigned to a crown with specialized training on sexual assault who should make every effort to prioritize scheduling of sex assault trials to have these cases move quickly through the criminal justice system, this is not being done. Along with the introduction of Crown who specialize in sexual assault, we call on all Crown Counsel to investigate their own biases and how the current rape culture impacts them, to unpack their learning’s and socialization about the value of women, to think about how they ask questions, how they deal with women as witnesses and to recognize the significant impact these processes, and the meanings derived from the processes, have on women’s lives and society as a whole.
There is a growing body of research illustrating the previously under-acknowledged prevalence of violence against racialized and migrant women. Women for whom English is not a first language must be provided with access to appropriate interpretation when interacting with police, courts, tribunals, income assistance workers and social worker. Children, family members, and neighbors should never be used as interpreters except where information is required to deal with immediate safety issues. Where a woman speaks some English and it is unclear whether interpretation is required, it is important to err on the side of providing interpretation. Where in-person interpretation is not feasible, telephone services such as CanTalk provide translation services into 154 languages 24 hours a day.
In British Columbia there is a critical lack of gender-appropriate services for women living with addictions. There is a significant overlap between experiences of gendered violence and substance misuse among women. This health service gap is a significant barrier to women’s health and safety. Along with the overall shortage of treatment beds and other programs for women, there is also a lack of treatment options that allow mothers to be accompanied by, or maintain meaningful contact with, their children. This problem could be addressed by supporting projects that are already having positive impacts for women and by ensuring that addictions strategies and analyzed through a gendered lens.
On any given day in Canada, more than 3,000 women, along with their 2,500 children, are living in an emergency shelter to escape male violence. Children see, or hear, 40% to 80% of family violence incidents and many face the same consequences as those who are directly abused. The likelihood of children witnessing violence is heightened when the victim is estranged from her partner. In 2009, over half (52%) of spousal victims with children reported that their children heard or saw assaults on them in the previous five years. This was up from 43% in 2004.
The reality is that women who experience violence are forced to parent under duress and often have to take on the work of addressing the impacts of violence for their children, however, that does not mean they should be held responsible for the violence their children witnessed or its impacts. Yet, child protection workers often informally requests that the mother take responsibility for preventing the offender from having contact with the child without offering support in having family or criminal law orders amended to support the woman in preventing such contact. Child welfare files and psychiatric assessments often focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence because medical professionals and other institutions concerned with children’s well-being focus their interventions on mothers. This issue needs to be addressed in social work practice and in the practice standards of other professionals who intervene with families.
It is unacceptable to blame women for their own victimization. Women are not responsible for violence perpetrated against them, and cannot be blamed for violence based on their appearance, sexual preferences, past behaviour, or lack of resources. Violence against women occurs because perpetrators act violently, not because women do not take the proper precautions to protect themselves. Violence occurs against women of all ages, shapes, sizes and colours, in a variety of forms and a wide range of settings. To stop gender-based violence, BC needs to move away from risk-reduction strategies that put the onus on women to avoid being assaulted, and focus on the reasons perpetrators are using violence in the first place.
The only programs a woman needs as a result of having experienced violence are the ones she wants. Women leaving violent partners are frequently told that they should, or even must, attend parenting classes and counselling. They hear this from transition house workers, public health nurses, social workers, and family court judges. There is no research to suggest that forcing women to take classes or attend counseling stops an abuser from being abusive. Women are not responsible for the abuse, and being a victim of abuse does not mean that she is lacking in parenting skills or will benefit from mandated counseling. If she asks for supports, they need to be available, but requiring women access services is punitive and only increases the stress in her life.
The evidence is clear that proceeding to trial quickly in cases involving violence against women improves defendant accountability and enhances the safety of women. In BC, it can take 9 months or more for an intimate partner assault to go to trial. During this time, the victim may live in fear and often face harassment and pressure by the accused to recant her statement, or not show up to court. In other cases, women have moved on with their lives and do not want to be called back to face their abuser so long after the event. Countries that have fast-track processes or dedicated domestic violence courts have seen considerable increases in women appearing for their court dates and accessing related support services. These countries have also seen an increase in men pleading guilty and fewer probation violations Domestic violence courts or fast-track processes for domestic violence cases must be implemented in BC.
The intersection of poverty, gendered violence and lack of affordable housing in women’s lives is a key site of intervention in the struggle for women’s safety and equality. Women with low incomes are frequently vulnerably housed – they have to spend more than 50% of their income on crowded and/or unsafe housing, and have to move frequently. Studies consistently show precariously housed and un-housed women to be at much higher risk of experiencing not only, abuse, and sexual and physical violence, but also acute and chronic mental health crises. Researchers have also found that the longer women who have experienced violence remain in tenuous housing situations, the more likely they are to return to the situations of violence and abuse they sought to escape. A nationwide shortage of rental housing—not just subsidized or affordable housing—results in the reality of having to settle for housing located in areas far from schools, support networks, and necessary services, further exacerbating risks for vulnerable women and their children. Provincial anti-homelessness strategies must address these gendered realities.
At the end of 2012, the Attorney General released the final report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry to the public. Before moving into his formal recommendations, the Commissioner urged the Provincial Government to commit to two measures immediately, one of which was to develop and implement an enhanced public transit system to provide a safer travel option connecting the Northern communities, particularly along Highway 16. The province must take immediate action on this recommendation and also look more generally at the lack of safe and affordable transportation within and between communities across the province.
Since 2004, the Ministry for Children and Family Development (MCFD) has provided their representatives with practice guidelines through Best Practice Approaches Child Protection and Violence Against Women. In December 2010, the B. government released the latest version of the Violence Against Women in Relationship (VAWIR) policy and an updated version of the Best Practice Approaches Child Protection and Violence Against Women and created a training curriculum based on the VAWIR policy. However, they have not provided this training to their child protection workers in a comprehensive way. In 2013, decades after the B.C. government created these policies, many women around the province continue to report they experience inconsistent, unhelpful and unsupportive involvement with MCFD child protection workers when dealing with situations of gendered violence and spousal abuse. It is critical that social workers across the province are adequately trained and resourced to deliver service that is in line with MCFD’s Best Practice Approaches and that MCFD audit for compliance with those practices.
In BC, court processes and courtrooms are not safe or accessible for women victims of violence. When coming to court to testify, women are often forced to share waiting space with their abuser and it is not uncommon to find the accused bullying the victim in and around the courthouse. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring that women do not have to interact with the alleged perpetrator, his family or his support network when arriving at, waiting for and leaving the courthouse or when accessing court-based victim services programs. Steps must also be taken to make it easier for women to testify via CCTV from a safe location.
BC’s VAWIR policy states that all victims should be advised of the availability of victim services and identifies clear referral policies depending on the resources available in a given community. In spite of protocols, many women continue to fall through the cracks. Front line workers play a pivotal role in empowering and supporting a woman when she decides to leave an abusive intimate relationship as well as supporting her when she is faced with having to navigate the Criminal Justice System. Victim-services programs must be resourced and mandated to be available to women within a short timeframe. The Ministry of Justice should ensure that all victim support workers within the Victim Services Programs and Community–Based Victim Services Programs are able to access proper training so they can support women and their families based on a multidisciplinary analysis. It is imperative to ensure that victim service, along with other front line workers, undertake a comprehensive training that includes gender violence and an intersectional decolonizing practice. They must be equipped to engage in a practice that takes into consideration gender, race, class, gender identity, ability and/or disability and that reflect an understanding of the dynamics of power and control that underlie violence against women.
In 2002, 77% of family caregivers in Canada were women. Women who take on the majority of unpaid work that is required to care for young children and aging parents often make sacrifices in their careers in an effort to balance work and home life. Women who do not have financial security find it much harder to leave an abusive relationship and to stay out. To leave abuse, women need access to affordable childcare, or adequate financial support to care for their families themselves.
More emphasis must be placed on making programs available to offenders who are genuinely interested in making a change in their lives. Programs must address belief systems that perpetuate violence and abusive behaviour. Drug and alcohol treatment programs and anger management programs are not a substitute for interventions that target patterns of abuse of power, although they may also be required. BC does not have a comprehensive inventory of programs and services available to men who abuse their female partners. BC should engage in an evidence-based process for selecting programs to develop and fund.
Statistics such as “a woman leaves an abuser seven times before she leaves for good” are useful to demonstrate the enormity of the barriers facing women leaving abusive relationships, but these numbers are not inevitable. There are many organizations right here in BC that are effectively supporting women to beat the odds. Organizations that work with women by supporting her in whatever choice she wants to make and by offering whatever supports she believes she needs quickly see that women can make meaningful positive changes in their lives in a relatively short period of time. Whether in the field of policing, child welfare, education or criminal justice the most successful anti-violence programs from other jurisdictions rely heavily on partnerships with women-serving agencies that have a deep understanding of the dynamics of violence against women and whose mandate is not to “fix” or “protect” women, but to work with women to end violence against women.
Endorsing Organizations and individuals
Atira Women’s Resource Society
Battered Women’s Support Services
Pivot Legal Society
Samnani Law Corporation
WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre
West Coast LEAF
YWCA of Metro Vancouver
Isabel Chen, Co-Director of Keep Safe Initiative
Tracey Young, Forensic social work consultant, Catalyst Enterprises BC