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Sisterhood in the Transition House

By Florence Bouchard Lepage
May 12, 2020

The quotes in italic are from battered women who participated in a roundtable conversation we hosted in April 2009. The women speaking lived in the past in our (Vancouver Rape Relief’s) transition house, as well as in the second stage housing of Monroe House and Safe Choice.***

On top of operating on 24h crisis line, my collective, Vancouver Rape Relief has a transition house for battered women and their children. During my weekly night at the house, I spend time with our residents, help out with chores and play with children. As I support them in their transition to a life without violence, we share with each other what we know of male violence against women as I see them in their resistance part of the women’s liberation movement. 

Escaping his abuse

The moment when a woman decides to leave her violent partner is different for every woman. Sometimes, it’s after an incident of physical violence. Sometimes she feels his anger building up and wants to leave before an incident happens. Sometimes, there’s a window of opportunity to escape because he is passed out or away for work. Sometimes she thinks to leave for just a few days. Sometimes, she leaves determined to never return. For mothers, the need to protect her children is crucial in the decision to leave.

“I was brought up in an abusive family with domestic violence. I learned from seeing my mom that it was alright for a man to beat her up and call her stupid and worthless. When my husband started beating me up in front of my daughter, I realized that I didn’t want my daughter to live like that.”

“My kids were constantly coming to me and begging me to leave. “Mom you have to leave, you have to.” But I was still living in fear. Traditionally I thought it was a shame to leave your husband. I thought my parents, my relatives, my friends, would judge me. I’ve been raised that way. I’m always trying to be perfect, trying to please everybody.”

“Why didn’t she leave before?” is what a lot of people would say when they hear about a woman who was battered for years. She stayed because there were some happy moments. Because she doesn’t know where to go. Because she knows no one else in the city. Because she called the police in the past and they didn’t do anything. Because she relies on him for money. Because her family will shame her and stop talking to her. Because she experienced so much violence in her life that it became normal. Because she is fearful he will find her and beat her even more.”

Moving into a transition house means a lot of unknown for women. They have to leave most if not all their belongings behind to move into a new place where they are going to spend a lot of time with women they don’t know and didn’t choose. I try my best to make them feel at home. When I first meet her, I don’t ask a new resident what brought her here. I ask her if she needs anything to be comfortable. As I interact with a resident, I tell myself that tomorrow I could be her.

“It’s a day none of us will forget. I left my house with 3 bags and a stroller. I had 5 year old and a 1 year old. I told my oldest we are going for a swim. We just dressed in casual track pants, carrying swimsuits and him expecting we were going. I took a cab and went to the transition house, scared. I felt like it was a dream. I remember sitting in the cab, looking at the trees passing by. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing.”

“My first day here, I remember telling myself, look at the wall, don’t make eye contact. I was very overwhelmed. But everybody was so nice. Nobody was trying to get all the information from me. It was a sense of relief, that I’m doing the right thing. I felt I had a home.”

“When we got to the transition house my son asked me “Mom is it all moms and kids and no dads? I said yes. He said oh good!”

Breaking Bread

If there’s one thing I always do, it’s offer my help to the woman who is cooking. On the nights where there is no plan for dinner, I usually make a nutritious salad that I put on the table for whoever will be hungry later. We keep a variety of ingredients on hand so women from different cultures can cook whatever they want whenever they want, from scratch. We have lots of fresh vegetables, many kinds of grains and beans and all the spices you can think of. While the children are playing, we naturally gather around the counter while making dinner There’s something about kitchens that bring us together. Women are often teaching each other and us how to cook dishes from their different cultures.

“All women, no matter what background you come from, food is comforting.”

“I remember being so stressed out I started to bake! Which I am not very good at!”

“I could go in the kitchen and feel it was my kitchen. It didn’t feel like you were in an institution. I came from a foster care background so I was assuming it was like in group homes where they lock the cupboards”

“If children are hungry you can go and make a sandwich. (…) That was my biggest worry. You worry about how you’re going to feed your kids”

“We cooked amazing dinners. It helped the women bond with eachother.”

“It helped my son who is a very picky eater to learn new foods. I found new things that he started liking and appreciating”

Her experience of sharing

At the dinner table, we talk about the violence they experienced and what their lives were like. Even though some women are more vocal than others, other women can relate somehow. They are all here because a man used his power over her. Each woman might be at a different stage in her understanding of the violence done to her. She is learning from other women’s experiences. She is learning that male violence against women is systemic. It’s not uncommon for women, while with us, to remember rapes that happened a long time ago, hidden deep inside themselves. Or to realize how past relationships with men were sexist and manipulative.

“When I got to the transition house, there were two other African women living in the house. We started sharing our stories and our lives and certain traditional customs we had. Even though each of our experiences with the men we were living with are different, all in all the root of it is about the power that men have over women. (…) We were able to talk about it with the works and realized it’s not just happening to us, it’s happening globally.”

“All the men who are abusers have the same profile. It’s like they read a book on how to abuse a woman.”

“I understand better how he took advantage of me. There are so many things I didn’t see before coming here and talking to the workers and to other women”

“I now know where the problems are. I can face him, avoid him, not let him grab my weaknesses. I know how he manipulated me. I learned it from other women.”

After dinner, we do the dishes and prepare the kids’ lunches for the next day. We often talk about house hunting and how high rent is in Vancouver. Market housing is not always an option, especially for women with children. Subsidized housing usually means long wait lists. There’s what we call Second-Stage Housing that offers units specifically for women escaping violence. Women can typically stay in those apartments for a year or two. It’s a really good option for women if a unit is available but space is limited.

Looking for housing is very demanding and so is getting legal aid, finding a lawyer, looking for a job or applying for income assistance. A battered woman has to do all of that on top of healing from the injuries he did to her.

“I was relieved I could finally get the help I need in the transition house”

“Dealing with things like social workers and welfare, it’s very hard. (…) The system should be a little bit more sensitive. Because if you’ve left you are making the right decision. ”

“The women have helped me become more independent and I’m able to take care of myself and my children.”

“Why did she go back?”

There are some women that will stay with us for many weeks and others just for a few days. We know from our experience on the front line that it can take several times for a battered woman to leave for good. When a resident goes back to her violence partner, we keep in touch and make sure she knows she is welcome back whenever she is ready to. She now knows that other women, workers and residents, care about her.

Women have used transition houses to take a break from abusive men. Every time she comes, she has a glimpse of what it would be like to live without his violence. Every time she comes, she takes back a little bit of power from him. Before feminists created transition houses in the 70s, women had nowhere else to go. Now men know women have an option and a group of women who will protect her from him.

Still men have so much control over women. Why do women go back? Because he told her he would change and go to therapy. Because her family is pressuring her. Because she lost her job and cannot survive on the unrealistic amount given by income assistance. Because her children are asking for their father. Because he has a house. Because she struggles to make it on her own, paying rent and food with only one income.

The future

The road to be free of violence is long. There’s securing long term housing, feeding your children everyday, fighting for custody, finding employment, testifying in court, going to counselling and to medical appointments. It is generally accepted in society that the right thing to do for a woman living with an abusive man is to leave, but what’s in place to support her freedom?

“I was a person that was once functioning in society. Now I struggle to survive.”

“The aftermath for me as a parent is that I have to take my kids to counselling after counselling, I’m a single mom with no family here and no time. (…) I’m the one that’s raising them since they were babies and they just took them away because of the man that did this to me. (…) It’s not fair to women and children. You are being victimized through the system. Move here, move there, out of the province. And what is this man doing?”

“He still won’t leave me alone. He’s the most abusive man, the most controlling person. I still have that fear in me. I have some freedom now as I don’t live with him. But the trauma of the things he did to me is still engraved in my mind. I had to come back to rape relief 2 years after I left him because he came by my place and assaulted me so badly. I have a restraining order from the police but that’s just a piece of paper. It’s not going to protect me. ”

We need so many things in place for women to be truly free and for men to stop beating, raping and exploiting women. We need men to be accountable for their actions. We need police to do their job and we need justice from the criminal justice system. We need a Guaranteed Livable Income to ensure women’s economic security and independence from men. And in the meantime, we need more transition houses and rape crisis centers.

I am proud to be part of a women’s group that offers women safety and support and I am moved by their courage and resilience. 

“If the transition house had not been there, who knows whether I would still be alive or he would have done to me and the kids”

“I’m proud that tomorrow I can step out in the outside world and say that I’m free from abuse. I can stand and I can fight not only by myself alone but with a lot of other women”

“I’m proud that I’m a good mom”

“I’m proud of myself for financially biting it for a while to get me and my son in a better situation.”

“I’m proud because I took myself and my kids out of an unsafe situation”

Read Also

There has been a great push toward methods of professionalism in our work in the transition houses and it will take every effort on all our parts to fight back and hold onto our practice of feminism.

By Pauline Funston

In Canada, as in many other parts in the world, women first operated rape crisis centres and transition houses in the mid 70’s as part of the second wave of the feminist movement. The collective of Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter has been operating a rape crisis centre since 1973 and a transition house since 1981. In April 2009, we invited women who stayed in our own transition house, and in the second stage housing of Monroe House and Safe Choice, to share their experience of using these houses to get free from violent men.

May 12, 2020

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