Breaking the cycle: A Q&A on the stigma of domestic violence

When a woman flees domestic violence, she will often return to her abuser multiple times before she leaves for good. But that’s rarely because she’s “in love,” but rather because of such factors as economic insecurity, deep-rooted shame or fear of what her abuser will do if she leaves.

Of police-reported violent crime, 28 per cent of victims aged 15 and older had been victimized by an intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 report on family violence in Canada. But, the report points out, most often victims of spousal violence don’t report the violence to police “because they saw the abuse as a private matter.”

It’s a difficult cycle to break — and while programs exist to support women fleeing abuse, current policies can further victimize women. To access some services, for example, a woman must provide ID and documentation, which she may not have if she was forced to flee in the middle of the night.

To get help, she must navigate through layers of bureaucracy — rules, regulations and policies drafted by municipal, provincial and federal governments — all while trying to escape a violent home. Imagine a City talks to Lieran Docherty, program manager at WomanACT (Woman Abuse Council of Toronto), a policy development and planning body that coordinates an efficient and effective approach to providing services for women experiencing violence.

How does economic security play a role in domestic violence?

One of the things we look at very closely is the economic impacts of women fleeing violence. Poverty in one sense can marginalize women, but poverty is a key barrier for women fleeing violence. It can put them at risk of violence or keep them in violence. In all cases, in the aftermath of violence, women’s economic security is always impacted.

How do existing policies further reinforce economic insecurity and victimization?

Policies often require women to prove their abuse in order to obtain support or services. They might have to show a police report; for some services, abuse has to be recent in order to receive legal aid and support. So, in cases where a woman may not have proof, or the proof they need is at home with the spouse they just fled from, that proof can be a big barrier for women accessing services. It reinforces this idea that women might be lying about their abuse to access certain services — this is a really dangerous notion.

Are shelters helping or hindering women fleeing violence?

Shelters are full, and women are staying in shelters in Toronto for an average of 10 to 14 months because of the cost of housing. But even to access the majority of shelters in Ontario women may have to apply for social assistance.

How so?

Social assistance programs in Ontario have an asset section, which means you can only have a certain amount of savings or assets. To be eligible for social assistance, you may be required to give up assets, such as your savings or a car. And we know the rates of social assistance are extremely inadequate; they don’t meet a woman’s basic needs — never mind that of her children — and she may have to give up whatever assets she does have.

Can social assistance programs help women gain financial independence?

There’s a lot of stigma around being on social assistance and not a lot of flexibility; it’s really about finding the shortest route out of social assistance. So, a lot of women end up in underpaid, precarious employment. It’s not providing the support they need to get into good, decent, meaningful work. It’s a difficult system to navigate, and it’s difficult at a time when a woman is trying to re-establish herself.

Why is there so much stigma associated with getting support and services?

The incidence of women lying about violence or lying to get into social assistance or immigration programs is very low, but there’s still a focus on rooting it out — which creates a stigma around accessing certain supports and services. Often, we hear from women that when accessing services there are more rules and regulations than support and entitlement. Our policies are not giving women the leg up they need to leave an abusive situation.

What about immigrant and newcomer women?

Immigrant women may face additional barriers such as language or limited knowledge of provisions and services. Women gaining residency in Canada are also more likely to gain permanent resident status as a sponsored spouse. There are larger implications that if a woman doesn’t have permanent status and she reports [abuse] to police, she runs the risk of having her status reported. Women being sponsored and fleeing abuse are eligible for social assistance, but it will impact their own permanent status application down the road because it shows they’ve had to rely on the state for income. All cultures and societies can also have practices that create stigma and shame around domestic violence. In the South Asian community, for example, many women won’t leave an abusive situation for fear of being ostracized or cut off from other community members.

If the rates of domestic violence are so high, why isn’t it more of a national priority?

We really are at a crisis point — however, from more of a public interest or public policy perspective, it’s not always seen as a crisis. Policies make it very difficult for women to flee violence, to navigate a complex system, and then to establish themselves again and stay safe. Because of economic security reasons, many women return to an abuser. Policies can re-victimize women — having to tell your story over and over again or having to prove that you’ve been abused — or even criminalize the behaviours of women who seek support. As a result, many women choose not to access services. The full impact of the numbers isn’t as noticeable because of all these factors that stigmatize women and prevent them from reporting the abuse.

What policy changes are you advocating for?

I would say that violence against women is probably the largest human rights violation globally, yet we know it’s underfunded. It reflects a history and manifestation of gender inequality. What we want to see is policies that tackle that root cause. Not one single policy can solve violence against women per se … but we want to see policies that promote women’s economic security, employment protections, equal pay. And we have seen some positive changes — Ontario introduced workplace leave legislation, which provides five days of paid leave for a victim fleeing abuse to find support and ensure their income is not impacted by violence.

Can policies really make a difference?

Policies can help shift social norms and practices; they can increase political will. Really, policy impacts people’s lives every day and they can have a large impact on women experiencing violence and how they navigate a system in which they try to find safety. A lot of this work is really about how can policy better support women, and advocate for those changes in policy we want to see, but also ensuring policies address the root causes of gender inequality.

If you’re experiencing violence or abuse, there is help out there. The Assaulted Women’s Helpline offers a free, anonymous and confidential 24-hour telephone and TTY crisis telephone line to all women in Ontario who have experienced any form of abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline and Ending Violence Association of Canada also provide support and contact information for services across the country. You can also call 211, which offers a variety of support services across Canada, from emergency assistance to counselling and daycare—help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 100 different languages.

Ask the Experts: Is human trafficking happening in the GTA?

This article originally appeared on LocalLove.ca—a digital magazine powered by United Way—on September 25, 2018. It has been edited and condensed for length.

All around the world, human trafficking interrupts—and, in many cases, destroys—the lives of women and girls. And despite what you might think, Canadians aren’t immune. While many people assume that victims are trafficked into Canada, more than 90 percent of cases that occur here are, in fact, domestic in origin: Canadians are trafficking Canadians. And trafficking across the country is on the rise, including in the GTA.

Trafficking victims are lured and exploited, often through fear, violence, intimidation or coercion. The crime is often confused with human smuggling (the illegal entry of a person into a country), but trafficking has to do specifically with controlling a person for the purpose of exploiting them, usually sexually. It encompasses anyone who is forced to perform sexual acts, including prostitution, exotic dancing, massage parlour work and pornography production.

One of the regions with the highest rates of trafficking in Canada? Peel. According to Statistics Canada, Peel has a higher rate of trafficking incidents per 100,000 people than any other region in the country—and in 2017, Peel Regional Police saw the most human-trafficking charges in the region in a decade. Most victims in Canada are first trafficked when they’re 13 or 14 years old and the average age of rescue, if they’re rescued at all, is 17. Often, trafficking victims end up addicted to drugs and trapped in the sex trade for life.

Targeted populations include those who tend to be socially or economically disadvantaged and excluded, such as Indigenous women and new Canadians, and those who move—or are lured—to large urban centres. High-school students are also frequent targets, particularly through social media, but also sometimes by peers. Because awareness is so low and public apathy so high, many women and girls don’t even realize they’re being trapped—until it’s too late.

But there’s reason to hope the situation could improve. On February 22, 2018, Ontario marked its first Human Trafficking Awareness Day, with the goal to make the province a place “where everyone can live freely and in control of their own bodies and lives.” A little over a year earlier, in November 2016, the provincial government launched a Provincial Anti-Human Trafficking Coordination Office, naming Jennifer Richardson, a survivor, as its director. Her office is now responsible for implementing the government’s four-year, $72-million anti-trafficking strategy. Part of the plan is to dedicate services such as support and housing to Indigenous partner organizations, as well as to create a survivor-led round table, the first of its kind in Canada, to prioritize the perspectives of those with lived trafficking experiences.

Meanwhile, on the ground, women from all backgrounds are coming together to fight this crime, raising awareness, supporting survivors and prioritizing the well-being of all women and girls to help prevent trafficking before it starts. Here are four inspiring women from the GTA who are making a difference in Canada’s human-trafficking crisis.

Shae Invidiata, Free Them

Shae Invidiata founded Free Them in 2010 to raise awareness—and funds—to abolish human trafficking in Canada. Like many other activists in this sphere, she believes one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is lack of public education—and motivation. “If you’re not aware there’s a problem, you can’t fight it,” she says.

Invidiata first became aware of human trafficking while studying in Hawaii, living on a street known as “Candy Lane” because of its child prostitutes. When she spoke with girls and women being trafficked in her neighbourhood, she pictured herself in their shoes and realized that if it were happening to her, she’d be praying that somebody would speak on her behalf, without judgement. When she returned to Canada, she started looking into the human trafficking problem within our own borders, and at how many people think it’s an issue endemic to other countries—not ours. “It happens in India, it happens in Thailand—yes,” she says. “But Canadians need to be aware that this is happening here.”

It may seem hard to believe—and there are those who prefer to pretend it isn’t an issue here, Invidiata says—but many women and girls in Canada are vulnerable. One of the many things she does to raise awareness is to speak at schools across Ontario. Almost every time, a student approaches to tell her they now realize human trafficking could be what’s happening to a friend, or even to themselves. In many ways, they just needed someone to speak out so they could be encouraged to speak up, Invidiata says. “All of the girls being trafficked have a voice, but they’ve been silenced by fear.” Education, she adds, is key. Just knowing what human trafficking is, that there’s a name for it and that there is support out there can make a huge difference.

Katarina MacLeod, Rising Angels

When Katarina MacLeod entered the sex industry at 21, she thought she was making a choice. Like so many women and girls in the industry, she had a background of abuse, exploitation and objectification that had become so ingrained that she didn’t actually see it as abuse, but as part of her identity. “It becomes you,” she says. “It’s normal.”

MacLeod’s path out of trafficking 15 years later wasn’t easy or clear-cut. At first, she says, she couldn’t function on her own at all. She didn’t know how to pay bills, budget, cook—or even how to dress appropriately for a job interview. Hurdles like these are why it’s so important for those working in anti-trafficking to understand a survivor’s mindset, MacLeod says. These girls and women have been degraded every day. Eventually, that abuse can start to feel normal; a lack of self-worth becomes ingrained. The more they’re exploited, the harder it can be to believe they even deserve to get away, or to have a better, kinder life, MacLeod adds. She stresses that it’s important to put survivors’ voices at the forefront—otherwise, solutions won’t work.

In 2015, she founded Rising Angels, a registered non-profit headquartered in Peel that helps women and girls exit the sex trade. It wasn’t just that MacLeod felt she was the right person to help other survivors. She also saw a dearth of survivor-led organizations in her region. “I wanted to help women,” she says. “I wanted somebody to understand them. I wanted them to know I had been through it.”

Today, MacLeod says she knows that entering the sex industry wasn’t intentional on her part. “It was a lack of choice,” she says—a long pattern of forced sexualization and exploited vulnerabilities. In October 2018, she’ll mark her tenth year out of the industry. She’s still in therapy, though, and she’s still healing. She might always be. And that’s what she tells the girls and women she helps: she’s not an expert—she’s still one of them. The only difference is that she’s further along in her healing. But as someone who understands, she hopes she can help them make it there, too.

Const. Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police

Peel Regional Police officer Const. Joy Brown is not the type of person to take all the credit. She stresses that it was the combined work of multiple Peel region organizations that made a big, collective step forward in the fight against human trafficking back in 2016 when more than 22 groups, including community, law enforcement, and medical service providers, joined to create the Human Trafficking Protocol. Essentially, the protocol, which Brown helped develop, provides a streamlined support process for trafficking survivors, linking support groups under one umbrella.

Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, won the Brampton Board of Trade’s annual Police Services Award in 2017 for her work with homeless and at-risk youth and human trafficking victims. In 2015, she organized a three-day human trafficking conference for 150 police officers and community partners, and she has chaired three committees focused on prevention and making victim resources more accessible.

Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational. Today, police are focusing on community rehabilitation instead of working in an enforcement role. Brown says that part of providing such “wraparound” support means that people from other regions also sit on the advisory committee, largely because trafficking is, by its nature, transient. This way, the groups can further prevent women and girls from falling through the cracks. “We continue to work as a collective,” says Brown. “It has been great having a coordinated approach to providing support.”

Together, the groups launched an awareness campaign with posters that ask, “Are you the one?” The brief scenarios that follow invite women and girls to consider behaviours that may have been normalized for them. For instance, many traffickers pose as affectionate boyfriends or friends at first, bestowing proclamations of love, expensive gifts and often drugs. That so-called grooming eventually turns to control and isolation. Victims are shut off from friends and family and made to keep in constant, supervised contact with their traffickers.

Trafficking victims also tend to be destabilized in terms of geography and community. In southern Ontario, women and girls are commonly shuttled along the Highway 401 corridor, from hotel to hotel—or, increasingly, to Airbnb rentals, which are more difficult for police to trace—all with the aim of ensuring they’re far away from home and have nobody to turn to for help. “Anybody can be a victim,” says Brown. “You can be recruited anytime.” But she, Peel Regional Police and their partner organizations are working hard to show victims that, despite what their traffickers might say, somebody really does care.

Bonnie Harkness, 360°kids, Hope Program

Victims of human trafficking were never on Bonnie Harkness’s radar. As director of operations at 360°kids, a United Way agency that provides safe housing to at-risk youth, her focus was elsewhere. But four years ago, York Regional Police called with a concern. The police were rescuing trafficked girls and women from hotels, but had no safe place to take them. Some survivors were subsequently lured back into trafficking, while others found themselves homeless.

Until then, 360°kids had no specific programming for victims of trafficking—it didn’t realize it needed one, says Harkness. But that call made the organization see that there was a need for expansion of their services. “Of course these girls are in a housing crisis,” says Harkness—and it’s one that requires unique, tailored solutions. She jumped into action.

Today, the Hope program offers survivors housing and support for up to five years, depending on their needs. In December 2017, Hope debuted a new three-stage model geared toward healing, independence and building a better life. The first stage includes services like 24-hour staffing, survivor-focused trauma and drug counselling and programs on how to do taxes, cook and shop for groceries. Survivors can move on to become semi-independent, with staff support, then graduate to living in a subsidized apartment, transitioning more fully to a new life.

Two girls have already told Harkness that Hope is the only place they’ve ever felt cared for. That feeling of home, she says, is critical. “They could have been treated very nice by these pimps at times, but with a string attached,” she says. “We want to be clear that there are people who care and want to help them move on and be independent—with no strings attached.”

4 Women making local issues #UNIGNORABLE

It’s International Women’s Day—the perfect time to celebrate some of the amazing women who are working hard to improve the lives of individuals and families across Greater Toronto. Whether they’re tackling #UNIGNORABLE issues like homelessness and human trafficking, or raising awareness about poverty and bullying, each of these women is strengthening our region. Their dedication, determination and love for community will inspire you to get out there and show your local love, too.

1. Aiko Ito, Client intervention worker at Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services

As a client intervention worker at United Way-supported agency Dixon Hall, Aiko Ito advocates for Toronto seniors who face housing instability. She primarily helps seniors living on a low income who have physical or cognitive disabilities or mental health and addiction issues—and leads them out of a crisis in their current housing situation. Whether the issue is accessibility, rent hikes, conflict with neighbours or threat of eviction, Ito’s goal remains the same: “To help people live safely, both emotionally and physically.”

2. Edna Toth, founder and Editor-in-chief of Tough Times

Six years ago, Edna Toth launched Tough Times , a social justice tabloid newspaper currently circulating 10,000 copies six times a year to people in Peel Region. Since it’s launch, the paper has been praised for bringing attention to the affordable housing crisis in the region—and for giving a platform to people who rarely have the chance to speak about their lived experience with poverty and homelessness. “We’re representing people who don’t have any opportunity to say anything,” says Toth. “They often have nothing. They don’t have a place to speak in except Tough Times.”

3. Constable Joy Brown, Peel Regional Police

Photo courtesy of Bryon Johnson & The Brampton Guardian.

Const. Joy Brown, a 28-year veteran officer, is not the type of person to take all the credit. She stresses that it was the combined work of multiple Peel region organizations that made a big, collective step forward in the fight against human trafficking back in 2016 when more than 22 groups, including community, law enforcement, and medical service providers, joined to create the Human Trafficking Protocol. Essentially, the protocol, which Brown helped develop, provides a streamlined support process for trafficking survivors, linking support groups under one umbrella. Two years on, the protocol—and the cooperation it brings—has been transformational.

4. Hannah Alper, social issues speaker

While Hannah, 15, writes about a range of topics from green living to bullying on her popular blog, Call Me Hannah , she’s perhaps best known for her moving speeches on social issues, including a TED talk. She’s also a bit of hero in her own community, where she received a student success award from the York Region District School Board for rallying her school to get involved in an international clean water campaign and local recycling program. While her accomplishments are huge, Hannah is a proponent of making small, everyday changes. “Know that it’s the little things that add up to make a big difference,” she asserts.

Want to meet more inspiring, change-making women? Head over to Local Love —your guide to living well and doing good.