As it stands in Canada, currently 15, 000 women each year are being turned away from emergency shelters as they attempt to escape the hands of domestic violence. According to the Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s 2013 annual report, this means that 56% of women requiring help are being turned down. Based off this statistic alone, it is clear that not enough is being done in Canada to support women struggling to free themselves of a dangerous living environment for them and in most cases for their children as well.
In an effort to bring more awareness to the issue, The Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses (EndVAW) begun a survey in November 2013 called Shelter Voices. EndVAW, which stands for ‘end violence against women’ is an organization that gives a national voice to the survivors of domestic abuse. The network was established in 2009 and currently represents 350 individual shelters across Canada. The purpose of Shelter Voices is to, “shine a light on the issue of violence against women and to break barriers by revealing what is happening.” It provides an inside look to a day in the life of women’s shelters and of the women and children seeking these services.
Domestic violence is happening in our own backyards, however it is a touchy subject that goes under the radar with good intention, to protect the victims. With that being said, the Shelter Voices survey is the first of its kind. This is the first survey to allow an inside scope of how Canada’s women’s shelters are shaping up, although the statistics are not as enlightening as one would hope.
In the most recent survey results, which were shared March 2014, 242 of the 350 shelters participated in every province and territory except Nunavut. The study was conducted on November 25, 2013 and on this given day 4138 women and 2490 children sought emergency help, however, 286 women and 205 children had to be turned away to a lack of resources and space. One must also take into account that EndVAW does not represent all of Canada’s women shelters and in addition, 108 of the represented shelters did not participate meaning the stats are much higher and much more alarming.
Shelter Voices also outlines that one of the biggest contributing factors to this issue is a lack of government funding. Seventy per cent of shelters believe that the funding is the leading cause of their inability to meet the needs of their clients. In addition, 60% of shelter workers are concerned about their ability to address the increasingly complex issues their clients face, and again, this is due to a lack of resources.
Kathleen Wynne is in agreement that more resources are needed to fight abuse on all levels. She has launched the “It’s Never Okay” campaign, which is devoted to ending sexual violence and harassment. The action plan aims to supply 41 million dollars over a three year period that will be allocated towards increasing capacity at all of Ontario’s 42 sexual assault centres, boosting funding for Ontario’s 35 hospital-based Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres, increasing workplace safety and keeping Ontario’s services up to par on the international scale.
Lise Martin, Executive Director of Shelter Voices recognizes Wynne’s initiatives, however, there is always more to be done.
“It [It’s Never Okay] is definitely going to help because it’s a part of the bigger picture but there definitely needs to be more resources and we’re looking at this data [Shelter Voices] for across Canada, not just Ontario, but I think Ontario is a leader at the moment.”
Wynne’s action plan recognizes that community involvement and engaging people in conversations that increase awareness on topics pertaining to sexual violence and harassment is a fundamental step in the right direction. In the plan, it states, “Raising public awareness of sexual violence and harassment is a key to change. We can do this in many ways. By teaching our children about healthy, equal relationships. By demonstrating how sexual violence devastates and how harassment traumatizes lives. We must intervene when we see this behaviour and stop it before it happens.”
Kavita Dogra, founder of We Talk Women, which is an organization with the mission to, “engage citizens in a conversation that will break the silence that most often surrounds women’s rights, injustices and sexual, physical, emotional violence” has been speaking out on the issue for many years. Her journey first began after she viewed a documentary titled, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo”. What struck Dogra the most is the women in the documentary believed help would arrive following the publication of the documentary and sadly, no help arrived to assist the women in the Congo.
As Dogra reflects on her emotions following the film, she states, “After watching that I thought, ‘I can’t be part of that group that just doesn’t help. How can I not do something?'”
So that’s exactly what Dogra did. She began to help in the best way she knows how to.
Dogra speaks at various events regarding violence against women and the means necessary to ending it. Most recently, she spoke at a panel discussion about domestic violence and again, that empty feeling in her stomach continued, as she is overwhelmed by how many women are effected by this issue. Speaking out in public and engaging in the community provides a first hand look at how much of an impact sexual violence has. It affects everyone to some degree, whether you have lived through it, know someone personally who has survived abuse or simply seen it in the media. Actions speak louder than words.
Dogra states, “You can read statistics, but it isn’t until you are in a room full of women, and once the person at the front of the room says, ‘how many people here would identify as a survivor’ and every single woman put their hand up in that room. And all of a sudden I felt sick.”
In Toronto specifically, there are a total of 13 shelters, though as people walk along the city streets one would hardly be able to tell that these shelters exist. By keeping these shelters hidden there are both positive and negative effects. From one perspective, it is a precautionary strategy to keep these women and children protected from their abusers, on the other hand, it makes it hard to raise awareness and promote lobbying efforts to gain more support from the government and the public to make change.
Dogra states, “women are suffering in silence” and the statistics prove her outlook is correct
It is not only women’s shelters that go under the radar, it is women’s voices that are not being heard. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. In addition, only 10 per cent of sexual assaults are being reported to police, meaning the statistic are much more staggering than they appear.
Dogra believes much of why women are not coming forward is because of people’s outlook on violence against women.
“A huge part of the problem is that people don’t believe survivors and it creates a hostile environment for women to come out and talk, and share their stories and therefore, they don’t.”
Martin takes pride in Shelter Voices’ ability to give these women and their children a platform to have their voices heard, while remaining confidential and protected. They have sought help and in addition, get the chance to share their personal experience within Canada’s women’s shelters.
Martin states, “One of the reasons we called it Shelter Voices is that we wanted to ensure the work of the shelters and survivors are more than numbers. We wanted the voices of the women to come out.”
Despite giving the women who are currently living in shelters a voice, the issue that prevails is the ratio of women being assisted versus turned away. Next week, EndVAW will be releasing the 2014 results from Shelter Voices and with it comes more astonishing feedback.
This year, the survey results had a smaller response with a greater impact.
Compared to the 242 shelters that participated last year’s survey, 231 shelters participated this year. In the 2014 results, 122 women and 81 children were welcomed as new shelter residents. However, more women are being turned away, indicating this is a growing problem. In 2014, 302 women and 221 children were had to be turned away due to a lack of space and resources (versus the 286 women 205 children who were denied in 2013).
Martin states, “Essentially, for every two women who have access to residential services within a shelter, five are turned away. So the need is huge.”
With growing need, comes a growing demand to take action. After reading this article, what are you going to do to help end the violence against women? If you or someone you know is in a dangerous position do not hesitate to come forward. Stopping the violence against women starts with having the right conversation, it starts with you.