Death Does Not Become Her: The Third Night

Thursday night, the Urban Women’s Anti-Violence Strategy hosted the third night in a week-long series of events during Prevention of Violence Against Women Week. This is a new coalition comprised of independent women’s groups from the lower mainland who have joined together to criticize the Solicitor General’s Domestic Violence Action Plan for focusing the province’s resources on risk assessment and a death review panel, both of which take place after violence has already occurred. The Urban Women’s Anti-Violence Strategy calls for recognition of the essential role that independent and equality seeking women’s organizations play in ending the systemic inequalities that perpetuate violence against women. 

As we entered the room, each participant was given a colourful piece of paper with a statistic about violence against women and its source. Facing us, the large window had been transformed into a grid. One side named forms of violence against women such as sexual harassment and incest, and the other side named “forces that sustain violence against women” like community, state, and criminal justice system. The audience was challenged to place their statistic on the grid, and explain why s/he chose that particular intersection of form and force. 

We were encouraged to debate or reinforce each other’s arguments with our lived experience. Quickly, the participants revealed to each other through debate and discussion that all of these forms of violence against women were sustained by almost all of the systemic forces that were named on the grid. 

We all agreed that in almost all cases the individual man should be held responsible for his choice to be violent, and most found it easy to name various aspects of the state or the criminal justice system as responsible. One of the first statistics read aloud told us that in 2005, in 1045 of the cases reported to police of spousal violence in B.C, the police treated the women as suspects. Brigid McGowan from the Surrey Women’s Centre pointed out that “there are overt ways in which the police blame women for the violence done to them, like telling us we should not have nagged or yelled or put pressure on him since he has lost his job. But the language of the criminal justice system is more subtle; it invisible-izes what is really happening when the police describe violence against women as ‘they had a fight.’” 

One participant said that the law that prevents a woman’s past sexual history from being used as evidence (in the small number of rape cases that make it to court), is unsuccessful since defence lawyers “cheat” and still ask her during cross-examinations. Or, the police can grill her about her personal history while “investigating,” despite the fact that police in B.C are not able to lay charges – it is up to the Crown to decide if the case goes to court, and they will only take cases that are “winnable” in terms of evidence or public interest. Cherry Smiley from the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network identified the relationship between courts and police as a major problem because “it results in finger pointing. The cops blame the courts, the courts blame the cops, we blame both of them - in the end, nobody has to take responsibility.” 

Another statistic read “In 2002, 2982 cases of sexual assault resulted in conviction, 556 cases resulted in acquittal, and 2986 cases were withdrawn or stayed.” The facilitator, Hilla Kerner from Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, reminded us that these numbers were nowhere close to the 27,094 sexual assaults actually reported to the police in the same year. The numbers become even direr when we take into account that “some women are beaten 35 times by their partners before calling the police.” 

The conversation got personal when we started identifying the community as a strong force that currently sustains violence. Lily Le reinforced this by telling a story about a friend who was raped at a party. “Everyone knows that [the rapist] did it, but no one says anything to him because it’s awkward. He still gets invited to parties.” My statistic came from a study done by Helen Lenskyj (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) and it shocked me: “A survey on date rape showed that 60% of college-aged males indicated that they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they would not get caught.” In light of a preceding statistic about how few women use the police (one in ten!), I preferred to define “get caught” more broadly, as a community response. If most women don’t use the police for protection or to get justice, then I see this statistic as a call for the community to rise up and hold rapists to account. When someone in the audience suggested that in Canada people just mind their own business, Kerner observed that she has seen many confrontations about littering or smoking in the right places. “So it’s not that they are unwilling to stand up, it’s that systemic sexism that makes them unwilling to stand up for women.” 

But we also heard a strong consensus that an organized community can be a force of change by holding abusive men accountable, as well as the systemic forces that enable their violence. One woman in the audience reminded us that “there are lots of things that we can do to dissolve that implicit permission.” We can name him, make it public, and use independent community groups like rape crisis centres to do so. 

The discussion illuminated the insufficiency of the province’s domestic violence reforms. “The Action Plan looks at violence against women from a very narrow lens, instead of understanding that all of these forces, including the actions of the state, collude with abusive men,” says Kerner. “They refuse to look at violence against women as an expression of inequality. If women had the same socio-economic and political power as men, we would not be subordinated.” Although the reforms are not detrimental, the grid illustrated that risk assessment training or a death review panel will not create the social transformation needed to eradicate violence against women and the systemic factors that sustain it. We require large scale policy changes. If women choose to call the police, the state must respond with a thorough investigation and an appropriate charge. Legal aid must be restored so that women can pursue criminal justice if they so choose. Welfare must be a liveable rate, so women are not kept in violent situations because of a lack of viable economic alternatives. And we require financial and political bolstering for independent women’s groups, so that she can get safe before the first time he hits her and not suffer through 34 more beatings before calling on the state and its arms. 

F. Jiwa is anindependent journalist who also works for VRRWS.

 

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