Violence Against Women: Enough is Enough
By Tamara Hansen
As I looked through statistics to begin writing this article, the situation for women in Canada is grim and enraging. With what we hear from the government of Canada about needing to go to Afghanistan to ‘liberate women’, it is truly appalling to look through the statistics in our own country. We must ask ourselves, is Canada any sort of role model for the treatment of women? Added to this, if women are such an important priority for the government of Canada why are we putting so much money into a war drive in Afghanistan and cutting funding to the Status of Women agency and women’s centres across the country? One look at the statistics tells us that we need MORE money and resources put towards the needs of women. If the government of Canada is unwilling to work towards the equality of women here, how could we fall for the idea they will do it in Afghanistan?
Violence Against Women a Problem from Coast to Coast
A specific case of violence against women that is very close to home for me, both as a woman and literally as I live only one block from the 29th Avenue skytrain station, the neighbourhood of 7 recent attacks against women, here in Vancouver, Canada. In just over 5 months, over 7 Asian women were violently assaulted by different male attackers near that skytrain station. This is a significant increase of violence against women in my neighbourhood.
One of these women was attacked in broad daylight at 11:30am. In the first four attacks a man came up behind them, hit them in the head with a metal bar, took their purses and ran off. These savage attacks left no chance for these women to defend themselves or call for help. I no longer feel safe walking to the skytrain or even to the corner market just down the street. I usually try to convince a friend to walk with me or give me a ride, but this is not possible all of the time and not a possibility for women who live alone or are single mothers.
However, violence against women is in no way a local issue only; it stretches across Canada and around the world.
The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres reports that 1 woman is raped every 17 minutes in Canada and 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted sometime in her life, usually by someone she knows. According to Statistics Canada, 198 women were the victims of homicide in Canada in 2004. This is higher than the average between 1994 and 2003 were approximately 182 females were killed every year. Also from Stats Can, “Women were much more likely to be killed by their spouse than men. In 2004, the spousal homicide rate against women was five times higher than the corresponding rate for men.”
The situation for Indigenous women in Canada is worse than for any others. From an Amnesty International report on violence against Indigenous women in Canada, “A shocking 1996 Canadian government statistic reveals that Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44, with status under the Indian Act, were five times more likely than all other women of the same age to die as the result of violence.”
Again these statistics only focus on violence and sexual assault which is a small fraction of the problems and oppression women face in Canada.
Where is the Government of Canada?
”Yes, I'm ready to support women's human rights and I agree that Canada has to do more to meet its international obligations to women's equality. If elected I will take concrete and immediate measures, as recommended by the United Nations, to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women in Canada." – Conservative Party MP Stephen Harper, January 18th 2006 (5 days before being elected Prime Minister of Canada), in a letter to the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action.
So what have the government’s actions been towards upholding its “commitment” to women in Canada?
In the fall of 2006 the Conservative government cut 38.5% of the Status of Women agency’s budget. Added to this they removed “women’s equality” from the goals of the agency and pulled all funding for advocacy, lobbyists or general research around women’s issues. This was a big attack on women in Canada and nowhere near upholding or ‘doing more’ for women’s rights.
The Status of Women is a government agency that focuses on, “improving women's economic autonomy and well-being, eliminating systemic violence against women and children, and advancing women's human rights.” They do this by offering funding to different groups working on women’s issues.
Turning Equality in Law, into Equality in Fact
Progressive groups across the country decried this draconian funding cut. Eliminating the funding for women’s organizations that engage in advocacy or lobbying the government effectively silences groups who seek to challenge the government’s actions against women. Fundamentally this stifles the role these groups have played in attempting to ensure that the voices of women are brought to the government and policy makers. These are the groups who are trying to give women a voice in parliament, where unfortunately only 1 in 5 members are women- and some of these 1 in 5 women supported the funding cut which was along their party’s line.
Recently there have been a number of meetings of the Standing Committee of the Status of Women Agency, this committee was created by the House of Commons and is independent of the Minister responsible for Status of Women, and of Status of Women Canada. Interestingly, the Standing Committee is currently against the cuts to Status of Women, which the minister responsible for Status of Women, Bev Oda, supported.
In an evidence meeting for the Standing Committee on December 13th 2006, Barbara Byers, the Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress shared this idea, “You're not going to find anyone around this room, a woman, who would say she's not equal, or a man who would dare say that we're not equal. But the reality is we still face discrimination at work, in our community, in parliament, wherever we go. We still have violence in huge numbers. We don't have economic and social equality.”
In another evidence meeting, on February 14th 2007, Nathalie Goulet, Director of the Conseil d'intervention pour l'accès des femmes au travail, explained to the Committee that in Quebec, “Legal experts now don't even talk about equality in law. They talk about equality in fact. Indeed, the name of the new policy on the status of women that was just passed in Quebec is: “Making equality in law equality in fact”. So, equality must be substantive, it must be real, and we must be able to measure it.”
The Question of Safety
Here in Vancouver, in May, after 7 women had already been attacked, the police and transit officials launched a ‘pink whistle campaign’. This was their feeble attempt to make women feel safer. However in the case of the four women who were hit from behind, what chance would they have to blow a whistle?
Added to that, the CBC reported on May 31st, “The whistles are being given out at the Collingwood Community Policing Office and by volunteers going door to door in the neighbourhood. Officials are also clearing some of the thick brush near the 29th Avenue Skytrain station, which could hide a potential attacker. They're also planning a walk, talk and ride campaign, in which volunteers would walk women from the station to their homes.”
As someone who is at 29th Avenue Skytrain Station on a daily basis, I have not seen any improvements on these fronts and indeed I have seen more television camera crews filming for the news at the skytrain station than security or police officers ready to help women walk home. But the question then becomes, does having more police around really make women feel safer?
I urge everyone who reads this article to look up the history of the lower mainland police ignoring women’s complaints of abuse and assault, especially in cases of domestic abuse, it is very interesting how many abused women they have tried to blame for the violence they endure.
There are also many cases of police abuse and harassment towards prostitutes and homeless women in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Justice for Girls, a non-profit group in the DTES sent out a press statement in June 2001, “In 1995, Lowman and Fraser, in a comprehensive report to the federal Justice Department, reported 4 convictions of police officers in the lower mainland in a period of 6 years. These police officers were convicted for extreme acts of violence against women in prostitution.” It is obvious from reading in the news over the past couple of years that police officers are rarely taken to trial or given criminal convictions for any crimes committed on the job, so it is pretty easy to assume that these 4 convicted officers represent a tiny minority of the abuse women are suffering at the hands of lower mainland police.
According to a PIVOT legal society report entitled, ‘To Serve and Protect: A report on policing in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside’, "In 2001, the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education Society (PACE) commissioned a study examining the frequency of violence against women in the Downtown Eastside and the effectiveness of the police response to that violence. The study involved interviews and surveys that were administered to 183 women involved in the street-level sex trade... The findings demonstrated that sex trade workers experience extremely high levels of abuse and violence from a number of sources. The majority of abuse was suffered at the hands of "bad dates." However, the women also reported significant levels of police misconduct and violence."
So it still needs to be asked, if the police aren’t really there, and when they are women do not feel safe or have confidence in them, who should we rely on?
Attacks on Women are not an Individual Problem, We need a Collective Solution
The problem with the solutions offered by the police, the government and many women’s groups is that they ask women to look to ways to defend themselves. I am not writing against women taking self-defence classes or carrying a pink whistle, these are helpful ideas for curbing the immediate danger. However, if we are truly interested in solving the deep crisis of violence against women in our society we must look at these attacks not as an individual’s problem (saying: “She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time”), we must see violence against women is a social problem – and our response must be a united one.
The need for education is clear. This needs to be targeted at both women and men and especially to young people. I remember in high school during my grade 8-10 years we had a ‘white ribbon’ campaign to spread awareness about violence against women. A group of students organized a petition to go into classes during class time and ask all for the young men in the classes to sign a petition saying they would never commit an act of violence against women and they would speak out against other men who do. This campaign was a way to open discussion on this important issue, however was just organized on students own initiative and meant that if there were no students who took interest in the campaign, it would not happen. Eventually that became the case, and in my grade 11 and 12 years there was no White Ribbon campaign or any education done in my high school about violence against women.
Why is this hugely prevalent issue not a part of the curriculum? Why is the burden of education about such an important topic left up to the students, who may not even recognize it as a societal problem? One first step would be mandatory women’s studies classes for all students at the elementary, high school, college and university levels. This would make young people more aware, that although we may not see violence against women on a day to day basis in our society, it exists, and it is in many cases hidden behind closed doors.
Political organizations for women also need to become stronger. Women’s groups must unite to create defence committees to focus on local education about safety, attacks on women and women’s oppression.
We must continue to call on the government of Canada to help women. The government must reverse its decision to cut funding to the Status of Women agency, and must reintroduce the issue of women’s equality in the aims of the agency. In reality the government should fund more educational projects about women’s issues and increase the amount of spending to create more 24 hour shelters and safe places for women.
Women, we cannot wait for the government. We must organize ourselves together to educate and organize a fight back against government cuts and against violence against women. Men, you too must join our fight, because the fight for women’s rights is truly a fight for human rights!
Stop Violence Against Women!
Women, Let’s Unite For Our Rights!
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