Dignity, justice and self-determination for women and girls. It’s what I imagine for our city.

Anne Marie (right) and Abi Ajibolade, shelter coordinator at The Redwood (left) hold up the image of a butterfly that symbolizes a woman’s personal journey out of an abusive relationship.

I imagine a city where all women and girls are safe, confident, respected at home, on the street, at work, at school. But it is not always the city I see.

I work at The Redwood, where we provide safe haven and support for women and children fleeing many forms of violence. Women speak of death threats and rape by their partners, of being beaten up by neighbourhood bullies because they are not the right kind of woman, of sexual harassment by employers and landlords, of terror at the possibility of being deported because they fled abuse by their sponsors, of returning to abusive partners because their jobs or disability support do not pay enough, they can’t access childcare….

There are many more stories. We listen to each one, offer counselling, a way of framing the experiences, share options and advocate with each woman for the resources she needs to live free from violence. I am inspired by the courage and resilience of women rebuilding their lives and by the many caring individuals in this city who support them.

I am also angry that we keep hearing the same stories over and over. I’ve been thinking a lot about the words on the drawing of the butterfly you see above. Transcend. Transform. Believe. The butterfly and the words are from Helena, a woman who sought safe haven at The Redwood. Along with thousands of other women in this city, Helena is living these words and working hard to transform her life. I am honoured to be a small part of that along with so many others. But the question I am asking myself is what are we all doing alongside Helena to transform policies, laws, and institutions that create the power imbalances and social conditions that make it so difficult and sometimes impossible for women to live free from violence – the many stories we keep hearing?

As I write this, there are new policies on the horizon that are going to narrow many women’s options even further as they struggle to leave abusive situations. Here are just two. The Community Start-up and Maintenance Benefit is ending in January; it is a benefit through social assistance that provides women leaving The Redwood, for example, to pay last month’s rent and to buy beds and dishes, the basics they need to set up a new home. With social assistance rates at an already historic low, many women do not know how they will be able to start over. A proposed immigration law could mean women stay with an abusive partner for the two year period required for the government to validate the marriage.

While many of us provide much-needed support to individual women and children through our work, volunteering and charitable donations, more of us need to engage in dialogue and action that challenge policies that cause such harm. I imagine a city where we embrace difficult conversations, challenge ourselves and speak up – indeed, where we are energized by the prospect of social justice and equality.

What needs to change for women and girls to live their lives free from violence?Many women and girls like those in The Redwood’s Women on the Move leadership program are doing this each day, in every community in our city, sometimes at great risk. They are challenging the sexism, racism and other forms of systemic power and control that endanger their lives and maintain women’s inequality. And a growing number of men and boys are joining them as allies as they understand that power imbalances and dominance distort everyone’s humanity.

We need to understand, support and be part of this leadership, to amplify it and build authentic partnerships for change. It isn’t easy to grapple with the contradictions and complexity that the transformation of power imbalances and social conditions requires. It is hard work. But it is necessary if we want women’s stories to change.

I imagine a city where all women’s stories are of respectful and equal relationships, economic independence, self-determination, reproductive choice, of living in safe, affordable homes, of being seen as sexual beings and not sexual objects, moving about whenever and wherever without fear of assault and harassment, of feeling safe and powerful!

When all women and girls across Toronto have dignity, justice and self-determination, our city will be a place where everyone will be safer, healthier and have the promise of fulfilling their dreams.

9 thoughts on “Dignity, justice and self-determination for women and girls. It’s what I imagine for our city.

  1. Anne-Marie, thank you for your strong and inspiring words. I believe through ongoing outreach and education, and encouraging crucial dialogues, the anti-violence message will reach greater numbers in our city. More people will add their voices and energies and become the advocates of change needed to challenge policies and social conditions that jeopardize social justice and equality for women and children. I imagine my city a place where we are all united in ‘Transforming, Transcending and Believing’.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. It is a very powerful piece .It is clear to anyone that Violence is a human right violation and we need to say NO for it in any possible way .Women deserve dignity and justice not because of any other reason, just because they are human beings.And I am so proud that Redwood is doing its greatest part .
    The picture you are holding depicts a lot too.So powerful .”A Picture is worth a thousand words”
    Everything well presented and well said

  3. I cannot think of a more noble way of celebrating our humanity than by reaching out and helping others grow through life’s toughest challenges. Thank you Anne Marie for leading the way, bringing attention to these important issues and giving a voice to those who need it.

  4. The fullfilling of witnessing the empowerment of a woman or a girl, or an entire family coming to The Redwood, and see them thrive and live with dignity out of abuse is part of our daily dose of happiness at The Redwood.
    Educating perpetrators, using resources to allow women and girls to live freely, without fearing being homeless, deported, or hungry when they leave an abusive partner, supporting families healing their mental health without prejudice is part of the actions. Awareness has to come from all instances; Involving communities, and powerful leaders and legislators to make the changes needed to live in a society without violence against women, and ultimately a society less violent.

  5. This post was simply amazing. I think it truly speaks to the work The Redwood has been doing and will continue to do in the future.

  6. This is such a powerful piece and really true. Thank you for putting this voice out there and speaking for millions of people; mothers, daughters, partners, women. We all need to speak out more and take a strong stand against the violation of women’s rights. It is indeed a right for all women and girls across Toronto to have dignity, justice and self-determination.

    True and well said!

  7. What a great empowering and inspiring post! Thank you for sharing such insight on a topic that can be difficult to speak on. It breaks my heart, everytime I hear another news report or news article of yet another woman who has lost her life at the hands of her partner. In this day in age, you would hope that these stories wouldn’t exist but unfortunately they still do. Two things come into mind with the question: “What needs to change to live free from violence”. And that is attitude and awareness.
    I imagine a city where women and girls can live free from violence and be all that they can be!

    • Thanks, Melanie. Hopefully writing and talking about the reality of violence in women’s and girls’ lives will help raise awareness and broaden understanding. It is a reality we are still too silent about. Violence against women is a human rights violation. How do we move people from awareness to understanding to action?

      • Thank you Anne-Marie and my apologies for not responding back. Didn’t realize I had a reply (which is awesome!). I see people moving from awareness to understanding to action is by making a call for action. By providing resources and ideas on how someone can advocate or simply how to get involved in women’s rights would be a great step. If I were to ask my circle of friends “what would you do if you witness a women being abused?”. I know many of them would say they don’t know and they don’t want to get involved. We need to engage the community and let everyone know that they can make a difference and educate them on what they can do to make it a safer place for everyone.

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