Tuesday, 13 February 2018 01:46

Understanding the Roots of Abuse

By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON

One woman is murdered in Canada every six days, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. This statistic belies what's been happening in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since the beginning of 2018: there has been a dramatic increase in female homicides, with five women killed in a span of six days.

Three were from the Peel Region, one from Halton and another from the Hamilton Region; all at the hands of their male partners.  

Sharon Floyd, Executive Director of Interim Place in Mississauga, calls it “horrific” and says that there is “no specific cookie cutter that can tell what abuse looks like.”

“Women are murdered because they are women, they are not valued in their families and their voices are not heard,” she added.

In the midst of volatile situations, many women often turn to the shelter system which provides a safe haven for thousands annually. And although it may seem like a viable option for many, a lack of resources can force many shelters to turn away prospective residents in need.

The thought can be alarming, considering that in Ontario, 65 per cent of female shelter residents were fleeing emotional abuse and 46 per cent were escaping physical abuse.

Immigrant women more vulnerable

For women who have immigrated from countries that do not share the same gender-neutral values, abuse can manifest itself at even more alarming rates. Studies show that "immigrant women may be more vulnerable to domestic violence due to economic dependence, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about community resources."

Canada is fraught with examples of this exact scenario and Samira Farah (name changed to protect victim's identity), a Bengali immigrant, endured many forms of abuse before finally finding access to the resources needed to remove herself from a potentially dangerous situation. Following an arranged marriage in Bangladesh, Farah immediately migrated to the U. S. before settling in Canada with her husband. Throughout their 10-year marriage, she was bombarded with emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse.

Her husband asked Farah to obtain money ($50,000) from her father to pay-off his own debt, but she refused. Instead, she resorted to jobs as a salon worker in a failed attempt to raise money.

Even through emotional abuse and intimidation by her in-laws, Farah gave birth to a baby boy in 2003. Despite the trauma she had experienced, which included multiple miscarriages, positive thinking allowed her to find solace in her newborn.  

Seeking help

However, her husband did not share her joy. With an eye on Farah's inheritance, he tortured her with threats of murder in isolated barren areas. Going as far as physical abuse with a knife in the presence of their then three-year-old son, she knew she had to make a change.

Farah struggled in silence to improve her marriage by opting for marriage counselling. Her counsellor suggested she call the police and later referred her to a shelter home.

“I didn’t want my son to grow in this violent environment, I want to teach him respect for women and that’s when I decided for divorce,” Farah says bravely.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Canadians spend roughly $7.4 billion annually to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone[/quote]

Every victim is different, however, their aspirations are revived when “they hear that they are not alone”, explains Floyd, who runs a crisis centre for women. “With some initial counselling they learn that it’s not their fault and women are not to blame; this is more of a societal issue.”

Raising Awareness

Farah initially started her mobile beauty spa to make ends meet. But in the process, she has met women from diverse cultures who have been through varied kinds of trauma inflicted by their intimate partners.

She believes that sharing stories with others has helped many alleviate the trauma they have endured.

“I am not the only person who has gone through this, [there are] worse stories out there, but that little bit [of] light of hope can change a lot of things,” Farah says.

Working in different sales and marketing departments, she has now been able to gradually regain her self-esteem. With the support of her co-workers, instructors and mentors she has even followed through on previous plans to further her studies by enrolling in a College program.

“Besides taking action on divorce and get[ting] out of that relationship, I am capable of doing anything that is possible in life,” she says with new confidence.

A woman's self-worth

Generally, it takes a woman 6-7 attempts before she actually pulls away from a relationship because they are not sure of the abuse.Especially when the perpetrator is controlling, it’s important to note that a woman’s security risk doubles when she decides to leave.

Nancy Gibbs, a professor of Community Social Work at triOS College, suggests that education, information and a safety plan must be readily available. Working with victims for over 25 years, she maintains that only through greater public awareness will there be more consistency on what actually constitutes abuse.

“Advertising, blasting social media with what is available to women and what abuse looks like,” she explains, are great ways to spread the word. “It’s important to educate [a] woman [on] her own personal value.” 

What one person would call abuse, another may refer to as just normal behaviour. Gibbs concludes that creating consistency in what is considered acceptable behaviour, stands as one of the first steps to eliminating abuse and ensuring a safer Canada for all. 

This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series. Writers interested in participating are encouraged to join the NCM Collective for an opportunity. 

Published in Health

by Diba Hareer in Ottawa 

Lack of language skills, community support and cultural constraints prevent many immigrant and ethnic women from fleeing abusive relationships and seeking help.  

The most recent figures from Statistics Canada show that one quarter of all violent crimes are domestic in nature and in nearly seven out of 10 cases women and girls are the victims. 

Although there are no specific numbers for the demographic, shelters in urban centres say they are seeing a growing number of immigrant/ethnic women using their services and fear many others aren’t seeking help because of cultural barriers. 

Seeking refuge 

Elmas, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is an 18-year-old, born and raised in Canada by immigrant parents. She was abused by her parents who, she says, sought to control every aspect of her life, imposing what she calls the lifestyle of a ‘traditional Middle Eastern woman’ on her. 

She currently lives in a women’s shelter and is concerned her parents might find her.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Elmas] fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage.[/quote]

Elmas says that she fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage, which she refused. 

Even though she was raised in a Middle Eastern culture at home, she valued her Canadian identity and wanted to be in charge of her own life. She says that’s what led to her parents abusing her.  

“My parents act as [if] they’re dictators in the house, whatever they say must happen ... They have anger issues,” she explains. 

Elmas says her parents worried they would become the “laughing stock” of their social circle and that they valued their image in the community above her welfare and happiness. 

Although they did not like being married to each other, Elmas says they chose to continue the relationship because divorce was considered taboo. Elmas desired to choose her partner herself, rather than be pushed by a culture she could not understand.  

Elmas explains her parents constantly yelled at her and subjected her to harsh criticism. They began controlling her contact with her friends and restricted her social get-togethers.  

“It was getting to an extent where I wasn’t having a choice in anything.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][T]he women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French.[/quote]

A common story  

Elmas’ story is one that staff at women’s shelters often hear from immigrant and ethnic women. 

Keri Lewis, the executive director of Nelson House in Ottawa, says more than half of the women staying at the shelter are immigrants and/or ethnic women. Lewis says the immigrant women specifically that she sees are often quite isolated due to language barriers.  

The trend is similar in Toronto. About 55 per cent of the women staying at Sandgate Women’s Shelter in York region are immigrants and/or ethnic women, according to Jehan Chaudhry, Sandgate’s executive director. Of that number, 35 per cent are of Middle Eastern descent. 

The types of cases both shelters handle are similar and include women fleeing physical and emotional abuse, forced or arranged marriages, and honour-based crimes.  

According to Chaudhry, the women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French and aren’t aware of the services offered by shelters.

Another factor barring women from running to safety is their concern about the impact of being separated from their children. Sometimes a woman who tries to leave her husband gets pressured by her community to stay.  

Economic dependency and fear of further victimization are other factors that force immigrant women to stay in abusive relationships. 

Priya Kharat, a counsellor at the Students’ Union Wellness Centre at the University of Calgary, found in her research that new immigrant women compare Canadian law enforcement with law enforcement in their native countries, which are often corrupt and unfair, so they fear seeking help.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”[/quote]

Difficult to leave  

Elmas had many second thoughts about running away.  

“I felt that it wasn’t right for me to leave if I didn’t give them a full chance,” she says. But her parents didn’t change their approach. They continued to emotionally and physically abuse her, and often would inflict the same pain on her younger siblings.  

“It was against my religion,” says Elmas, who is Muslim. “What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”  

The day she left is seared into her memory. She remembers feeling nervous and nauseous. “But I knew it was the direction that I had to go on,” she explains. 

Elmas had a friend who helped her leave home and find a shelter and a lawyer – support many women do not have. According to Chaudhry, one of the main challenges abused immigrant women face is not knowing how to navigate the Canadian system. 

Chaudhry says that’s why it’s important for shelter staff to provide facilities for women based on their specific cultural and language needs.  

Sandgate has Arabic and Farsi interpreters, a room designated for prayers and halal food options, for example.  

Now that she is at a shelter, Elmas says she feels safe. Her goal is to enrol in university once more and pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.  

Her advice for women and girls going through a similar experience is not to run unless they are committed to following through. 

“You’ll end up wanting to go back and if you go back, it’ll be even worse than before.”

Journalist Judy Trinh mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program 

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Published in Health

by Kelsey Power in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Many immigrant women who are experiencing domestic violence require culturally sensitive support services. A new project on Canada’s east coast aims to ensure these types of services are made available.

The New Brunswick Multicultural Council (NBMC) received almost $230,000 in funding from Status of Women Canada to create projects to ensure local domestic and family violence service providers, as well as settlement service providers, are adequately equipped to support immigrant women experiencing violence at home.

“We don’t know that the rates are different amongst immigrant women, but what we do know is that even though it’s difficult for everybody to disclose and seek help, we want to make it as easy as possible when they do,” says Dr. Catherine Holtmann, director of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research (MMFC), one of the project’s partners. “We’ll respond in ways that are appropriate and help them to stop the violence in their lives.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“One woman may not be able to access [services] because of the linguistic barrier, another one may be frustrated for not being culturally understood."[/quote]

Alex LeBlanc, managing director of the NBMC, says settlement service providers currently lack expertise in addressing intimate partner violence while domestic, intimate and family violence service providers lack capacity in terms of cross cultural contexts.

“It speaks to a lack of capacity on both sides of the fence. We want to figure out what the needs are and how to address them in a more coordinated way,” explains LeBlanc.

Barriers for immigrant women 

Reflecting on her own background entering Canada as a refugee, Hyasinter Rugoro, one of the project’s research co-chairs, says there are many possible structural barriers that may impact an immigrant woman’s ability to access services.

“One woman may not be able to access [services] because of the linguistic barrier, another one may be frustrated for not being culturally understood when they are trying to access the services or it could be somebody not understanding that they exist,” Rugoro explains.

Rugoro, who will be volunteering her time along with fellow immigrant and co-chair Dr. Maria Costanza Torri over the three-year duration of the project, recalls being new to Canada and being directed to prenatal classes, along with other services, of which she had no prior knowledge.

“There could be someone or some people that could be left into loneliness and confinement, not knowing where to go or what to ask for.”

Helen Lanthier was a project co-coordinator of Be the Peace, a similar initiative in Nova Scotia.

Also funded by Status of Women Canada for three years, Be the Peace was a coordinated community response to violence against women and girls, including sexual assault in rural communities. Thanks to this project, Nova Scotia’s South Shore area now has sexual assault services.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Stereotypes are destructive and discrimination can happen because of [them].”[/quote]

Lanthier says having the focus on immigrant women presents unique challenges due to the damaging impacts of societal stereotypes.

“Stereotypes are destructive and discrimination can happen because of [them],” Lanthier states, pointing to the recent niqab debate during the federal election as an example of this.

Lanthier’s counterpart says there might be some similarities between their project’s considerations of rural women and the NBMC project’s focus on immigrant women.  

“I think there’s a lot of overlap. Probably one of the biggest barriers is isolation,” says Sue Bookchin, co-coordinator for Be the Peace.

Bookchin speaks of rural isolation partially being present by lack of transportation, and social isolation by not being part of the dominant culture.

She says sensitivities, perceptual obstacles, fears and shame may hinder immigrant women from coming forward to access services and that attracting them to conversations might be more challenging.

Protecting confidentiality

The NBMC’s initiative is set up to pilot in four different communities in New Brunswick, both English and French, rural and urban: Saint John, Moncton, Bathurst and St. Stephen.

There will be various stages to the project including: assessing the community’s needs, exploring partnerships and collaborations, knowledge sharing and eventually an evaluation.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]"[W]e are really trying to understand the level of what the immigrant women know about domestic violence.”[/quote]

Like Bookchin, LeBlanc anticipates challenges in getting women to come out and share their experiences.

LeBlanc is concerned branding the project under the label of domestic violence might turn people away or make those who do come forward more vulnerable. But according to Holtmann, even though this project isn’t research, the needs assessments will abide by university ethical principals.

“We will ensure their confidentiality … the results of the needs assessment will not refer to any individual in any way that they could be identified.”

As well, because this project is about hearing what immigrant women, along with service providers, have to say, transportation, childcare and whatever else is necessary to make sure interested women can take part will be made available.

“We all come from different backgrounds and cultures and beliefs and my definition of domestic violence could be different from somebody else’s,” says Rugoro. “So we are really trying to understand the level of what the immigrant women know about domestic violence.”

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Published in Top Stories

by Susan Korah (@waterlilypool) in Ottawa

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in the famous opening lines of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

A similar scenario was set up when two parliamentarians claimed that Canada is a leader in combating family violence in diverse communities, while two keynote speakers from the front lines of social work and advocacy argued that recent changes in immigration policy actually exacerbated the problem.

This exchange of views took place at the conference titled “Impact of family violence: Continuing the conversation with South Asian and diverse communities,” organized by the Social Services Network (SSN). A Toronto-based not-for profit charitable organization, SSN was established in response to the United Way of York Region’s finding that the South Asian community there was underserved by mainstream service providers.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Minister Chris]Alexander listed a number of government accomplishments that he said would “make sure immigration is not a pathway to violence,” and put Canada in “a role of leadership.”[/quote]

This conference was the fifth in a series of annual discussion forums hosted by SSN to connect the South Asian and other collectivist communities with all the key sectors involved in violence prevention and response.

The focus of the conference was finding solutions and strategies and supporting communities, whose voices are silenced through fear and shame, said Dr. Naila Butt, Executive Director of SSN.

The Government’s Role in Combatting Family Violence

Special guest speaker, Minster of Citizenship and Immigration, Chris Alexander, who tabled Bill S-7 or the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act in Parliament to tackle forced marriages, underage marriages and polygamy, said: “These are issues around which there is a growing groundswell, especially among newcomers. They have chosen this country, and we have a responsibility to combat such things as forced marriage and domestic violence.”

Alexander listed a number of government accomplishments that he said would, “make sure immigration is not a pathway to violence,” and put Canada in “a role of leadership.”

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Family violence is not unique to South Asians; it is universal, and happens in developed, as well as developing, nations.” - Senator Salma Ataullahjan[/quote]

Alexander said that one of these was former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s initiative against forced marriage.

“On the immigration front we have been extremely active in the last nine years,” Alexander continued, citing such measures as conditional permanent residency and tools to detect and prevent marriages of convenience, forced marriage and human smuggling.

He also said that the government had put an end to proxy marriages and marriages by fax, which, perhaps surprisingly, used to be accepted as valid in Canada.

“But all this is still not enough,” he said, adding that Bill S-7 (which also amends the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to exclude polygamists) has passed in the Senate and is soon to be passed in the House of Commons.

Senator Salma Ataullahjan, of Pakistani origin herself, said at the conference: “Family violence is not unique to South Asians; it is universal, and happens in developed, as well as developing, nations.”

Describing her work on this issue at the international level, as a member of the Inter Parliamentary Union, she echoed Alexander’s statement that Canada has been a world leader in the effort to eliminate family violence and violence against women and girls. She added that parliaments have a key role to play in this.

Problems with Recent Immigration Policy

Keynote speaker Dr. Hannana Siddiqui of the Southall Black Sisters – a not-for-profit organization set up in 1979 to meet the needs of Black (Asian and African-Caribbean) and minority ethnic women in the U.K. – was critical of the name of the Bill. She had been called upon to give evidence by video-link to the Canadian Senate as it deliberated on Bill S-7.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Don’t use inflammatory language. For example, child abuse is barbaric, but it is not regarded as specific to one culture. Culturalizing forced marriage and similar practices will only lead to more discrimination against minorities.” - Dr. Hannana Siddiqui[/quote]

“I have concerns about the name of that Bill,” she said. “We don’t have to call these practices ‘barbaric’ or ‘cultural’ because then one can blame ‘culture’ for these unacceptable actions.”

She suggested that the Bill be renamed. “Don’t use inflammatory language,” she advised. “For example, child abuse is barbaric, but it is not regarded as specific to one culture. Culturalizing forced marriage and similar practices will only lead to more discrimination against minorities.”

She also cautioned against culturalizing honour-based killing, the form that domestic violence takes in communities with extremely conservative values around honour and shame. “It’s about gender inequality and patriarchy, so don’t culturalize it,” she said.

Tracing the history of her organization and of the Black feminist movement in the U.K., she said the first step, as in Canada, was to get rid of the reluctance to 'wash our dirty linen in public,' and to acknowledge and name the problem of family violence.

She said that in the 1970s, the State adopted a laissez-faire approach and tolerated anything as long as it fell under the umbrella of “culture.”

“This was liberal multiculturalism,” she said. “Respect everyone’s culture, don’t criticize and don’t interfere.”

This did not help her cause at all she explained, because: “Multiculturalism is no excuse for moral blindness.”

With the criminalization of forced marriage in the U.K. last year, the pendulum has swung away from liberal multiculturalism, she said. However, the problem with laws like this, and Canada’s Bill S-7, is making them effective, she added.

“It might be just driving the issue of forced marriage underground, because the victims, mostly young women, would be fearful of putting their parents in jail.”

She said financial constraints are a further obstacle to enforcing such laws. With the climate of austerity, and the consequent cutbacks in government funding, it would be difficult for victims to meet legal and other expenses, she pointed out.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Dr. Rupaleem Bhuyan, assistant professor at the faculty of social work, University of Toronto and the event’s second keynote speaker, was critical of recent (2008 to 2014) immigration policy changes, which she said actually make life more difficult for women victims of family violence.[/quote]

Identifying herself as the child of South Asian parents, Dr. Rupaleem Bhuyan, assistant professor at the faculty of social work, University of Toronto and the event’s second keynote speaker, was critical of recent (2008 to 2014) immigration policy changes, which she said actually make life more difficult for women victims of family violence.

Bhuyan has experience working as the principal investigator for the Migrant Mothers Project, a participatory action research project that works with a network of anti-violence against women organizations, legal advocates and immigrant women in Toronto.

Based on her research, Bhuyan said that the marked growth of temporary migration during this period, for example, through the Temporary Foreign Workers program, leaves many women in legal limbo, because as spouses of temporary workers, they have no rights whatsoever.  

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Published in Policy

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