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.