No, I can’t “just get over it.”

I read It’s Time: Canada’s National Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-based Violence today. I was part of the development of this Strategy, with a group of other strong and determined Survivors. We met over the course of a year to discuss our experiences in the Family Law, Criminal and Civil Court systems, as well as our experiences with social service agencies and child protection agencies. We culminated our accounts, thoughts and experiences, along with comprehensive recommendations, in to a report that was presented to the Minister of the Status of Women earlier this year. So, I was very curious and eager to read the report, particularly because our group, Believe/Croyez has been selected  from a National pool of other advocacy groups, who also provided reports of their own, with the hopes of being selected to work with the government in making this Strategy become a reality. Believe/Croyez will receive grant money to put our recommendations in to action and change the landscape of gender-based violence in this country, with a view to ending it.

So many parts of the report had me feeling hopeful and reassured; finally, it seems, the government is listening. Finally, we have a plan and that is a very good start. Something really struck me, though. A paragraph that says, “Violence can have life-long impacts on an individual’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health. Impacts can include physical injury and death, disabilities- including depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder- as well as sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, miscarriage, substance use, absence from school or work, job loss and social isolation.”  This is more true than anyone can know. I have often said, in an effort to lighten a very heavy mood when speaking about my own experiences, that domestic violence is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when a woman thinks she’s turned a corner, there seems to always be yet another road block for her to overcome. Being a victim is traumatizing , life threatening and life changing, but just because you’re “out” doesn’t mean it’s over.

Speaking for myself and, if I may, my children, we are still coping with the aftermath of my abusive marriage. I left my husband July 21, 2004, and still today, the shadows of Jason’s abuse hangs over us. We all have a degree of PTSD, depression and anxiety. We have all sustained physical, emotional and psychological injury from our abuser, causing us to miss work, school, become isolated from friends and family at times and, when we just couldn’t figure out a way to connect, from each other. I would often miss work in the early days of my separation due to lawyers’ meetings, court dates, doctor’s  and counselling appointments for my kids. But there were also times I missed work because the fear of leaving my house was so great, I couldn’t get myself through the door. The anxiety I felt being away from my children and not knowing for sure they were safe would have me keeping my children home from school for movie days, making ice cream sundaes while avoiding their questions about why they “got to” stay home today.

Often I would stay home rather than going out with friends because I just couldn’t handle their questions or worse, their lack of questions. They did not understand what I was experiencing and did not know how to support me. Seeing them living their “normal” lives was so painful for me; I felt like a failure in so many ways, it was just easier to make excuses and stay home. At times, friends just stopped inviting me, and I knew they were excluding me, but I didn’t blame them. I wasn’t much fun to be around with my anger and paranoia, my guilt and jealousy. Home with my babies was where I wanted to be and in spending so much time with my children, in keeping us all so close together, I created an isolation and a co-dependency that would later cause a rift in the family that I am not sure we (I) will ever be able to repair. My eldest daughter has left home, has stopped speaking to me and, while my heart is broken, I understand her motivation completely. She needs to separate herself from all that reminds her of the pain and hurt that was her childhood.

I suffer from PTSD, OCD, Anxiety and Depression… I never realized a person could have all of these diagnoses until I was awarded them, like a prize for “worst dressed” at a red carpet event. These are all badges I wear and the pin pricks in my skin where the various cocktails of medication do not numb their sharp points are reminders that while my marriage is long over, the effects of it are not. I am prone to self-medication with alcohol and, on occasion, recreational drugs. I have rituals that must be completed daily (hourly, minute-by-minute depending on my anxiety level)  some of which, my children can tell you,  are extreme and, for them, invasive. They have never enjoyed me vacuuming and mopping the floors and even less so when the vacuum is turned on while they are sleeping or trying to watch TV. I do both of these things daily, sometimes four or five times a day at my most anxious. There have been times where I have not slept for days and other times when its all I could do to get out of bed. Some say it is a testament to my strength that I always did get out of bed, but it was not so much my strength as my guilt, knowing I owed it to my kids to get out of bed and make the best effort I could to parent them. There were many days I went back to bed after I got the kids to school and stayed there until it was time to pick them up again.

I also have chronic pain in my back and chronic sciatica. I am told the injuries are those consistent with those a person would sustain from repeated hard falls to the floor on one’s bum. The vertebra in my back have been compressed to the point that I have bulging discs and deterioration, and the sacrum and pelvic bones have been damaged and this causes chronic sciatica. I was not a particularly clumsy child, according to my father, and I am 99% sure these injuries are from literally being knocked on my ass by my husband on many occasions. The pain is never completely fades, no matter how many pharmaceutical drugs my doctors prescribe, or how much alcohol I drink. The constant burning and ache are always there, reminding me of the trauma I survived. The pain keeps me prisoner in a cage of resentment, knowing that it will never get any better and I will never truly be free of “him”.

The choices I made, to leave twelve times and go back thirteen, were made in desperation and a will to protect my babies and try to make the best of a marriage doomed to fail. Even in leaving for the final time, I knew it would not be over just because I vowed to never go back, putting borders and country between us, to guarantee it. I knew he would come for me, and he did. Ten years of courts, lawyers, negotiations, left me bankrupt and living in a deeper poverty pit than I ever imagined. The stalking, threats, break and entering, dozens of daily emails kept me feeling afraid for my life and made it impossible for me to be completely present in any given moment. I lived in a state of hyper vigilance for so many years, that my body could not withstand the stress and so I now have fibromyalgia , a painful, difficult disorder that exacerbates the pain I already live with. I have  a sleep disorder that keeps me from falling in to R.E.M. which is required to repair and restore your body. I rarely wake up feeling refreshed.

Still when I go near the Perth Courthouse, I can feel the bile of fear rising in my throat. My hands get clammy, my stomach turns and tears well up in my eyes. When I receive an email from Jason, I still feel anxious and afraid, just seeing his name in my inbox. I received a note from my daughter’s orthodontist last week and it had a hand written note from Jason on it. Seeing his hand writing gave me such a jolt I dropped the paper. I put the letter away; I’ll come back to it when I feel I can. Isn’t that pathetic?

Strength, composure, competence is what people see when I meet them. I dress nicely, I do my hair and my make up daily. I present myself to the world as a Survivor who has overcome her demons and is moving forward in her life. And I am, moving forward. But the demons are at my back, talking in my ear, reminding me that I failed to protect my children, that their pain is my fault, that the future is non-existent.

I separated from my abuser July 21, 2004. I packed up my children and pugs and fled in the night, back to my hometowns to escape. We did not escape. And though court matters have been settled since August 5, 2015, the aftermath and the effects of my marriage are still with me. I will always be “surviving”. My children have a future ahead of them that sometimes seems out of reach, but I will always be there to encourage and support them. Their road is longer and perhaps more treacherous than most and I blame myself for much of that. So, when people say, “It’s been thirteen years. Can’t you just get over it?” I tell them, “No. I can’t.” I cannot just get over it because it’s not over for me. It never will be. That’s the reality of domestic violence. Leaving is not the end. It’s just the beginning of another journey filled with pain, fear and guilt. We Survivors are stronger than anyone, except another Survivor,  can ever really know. We put one foot in front of the other every single day, looking a head to a future we sometimes don’t even trust is there. We cannot get over it. It changed our lives, changed who we were and who we could have become. We wear the badge of Survivor without ever having had the choice to not. Our physical, mental, emotional and financial wellness is fleeting, inconsistent and unpredictable. So don’t ask me why I can’t “just get over it.” This is now my life. And the only way to “get over it” is to end it. That is the raw, unsugarcoated, truth. Society doesn’t want to hear this and for decades the trauma of domestic violence was ignored, swept under the rug. But, now we have a strategy, a plan. I was part of that and that is so empowering.

The path I’m on now is exactly where I want to be, speaking out and advocating to end violence against women. I will keep working toward this, keep fighting and keep lending my voice to those who don’t yet know they have their own. I Believe/Croyez we can end violence against women.

 

 

Family Law System Still Fails Women Everyday.

The Family Law system in Ontario is flawed. I mean, it is an absolute waste land of legal jargon, suppositions and red tape that makes it nearly impossible for people to navigate.  We have lawyers who are jaded, judges who are untrained and ignorant about the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse, and they are unsympathetic to victims of sexual assault, victim services workers who are underfunded and over worked, social workers who are indifferent. How are women supposed to navigate this system and protect themselves and their children?

I work with women who are victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault daily. I collaborate with shelters, outreach services and advocates to support victims and survivors  and what I hear is a lot of anger that women and children are not being protected by the systems that are supposed to be the guard at the gate, keeping them safe from their abusers. Police are not believing victims, lawyers are not supporting their clients, judges have little or no understanding of the complexities of domestic violence and abuse and the prison and parole systems are just not effective. The system needs an overhaul and it needs it yesterday! Too many women and children are dying at the hands of their abusers and it has to stop. If the deaths of women and children is not enough to spur the government to make meaningful changes to policy and pass more comprehensive and effective laws, what will it take?

Domestic violence is a unique area and it requires specialization to effectively support victims and give them real justice. Judges, lawyers, police and social workers all should be required to have training that is specific to the complexities of domestic violence and the training should be mandatory and updated on a yearly schedule.

One of the biggest areas of concern is the court ordered Family Assessments. These assessments are invasive, lengthy and ineffective. They cost a lot of money and require a large time investment and the results are typically generic and unrealistic. There are limited psychologists in the province who provide this “service” and often times the assessments take much longer than expected. In my experience, the assessors are also misogynist hiding behind their Masters Degrees and they definitely don’t have training or knowledge of the dynamics of a DV situation.

When these assessments are ordered, there is little or no consideration given to how this will affect a child. The mental and emotional well-being of children is not considered; it is all about the rights and entitlements of the abuser (father). The mother is scrutinized and interrogated and made to feel as though she is the one who is in the wrong. Home visits and sessions in the office of the psychologist that are long and exhausting are mandatory. Children are not permitted to have their mother or another trusted adult  in the room and they are interviewed alone, with a stranger. It is frightening for these children and they often shut down and cannot provide clear or accurate answers to the questions being asked. Those children that are a bit older, teens perhaps, are often confrontational or defiant. These behaviours are all held against the mother, and indicator that she has somehow coached the children or spoken ill of her abuser (their father) and so they show an allegiance to their mother that can only indicate parental alienation. What is misunderstood here is that women and children become almost co-dependant when they have been victims of DV and they are fiercely protective of one another as a means of survival.

Recommendations made by the psychologists are often unrealistic, insensitive and even callous. The emotional and mental well-being of the children, and that of their mother, is ignored, not even accounted for. Supervised access and reintegration is most often recommended as a result of these assessments, sometimes with joint custody. This is appalling! Expecting a victim to share custody, decision-making and child rearing responsibilities with her abuser is just unacceptable.

Supervised access agencies are notorious for being biased in favour of the abuser (typically men). Their so-called impartial facilitators are anything but, writing comments in reports that reflect their biases and can cause judicial hardship to the woman and her children.

Mediation is often expected of the woman, sometimes her participation in a co-parenting training class is mandatory. This is a cruel and irresponsible expectation as it puts the woman in a position of being legally bullied by her abuser and keeps her feeling vulnerable and isolated. Women cannot be expected to sit across a table from her abuser and discuss parenting or anything else with her abuser. The imbalance of power is too great and the insensitivity of this being recommended and expected by assessors and judges is proof that these people do not have an understanding of DV, nor do they have any regard for a woman’s emotional and psychological safety.

Throughout these processes, women are often left waiting for a child support order. Abusers often do not submit their financial statements or tax returns in a timely manner, or they lie about their income, and they are given excessive amounts of time to withhold this information and delay the child support order. The courts enable the abuser to financially abuse their victim. The Family Responsibility Office is slow to process court orders and have support payments deducted from and abusers income, leaving women and children living in dire financial hardship while they wait for FRO to get their paper work done. FRO is not aggressive with penalties for men who do not pay. The case workers are not allowed to use their discretion or common sense when interpreting support orders as they actually “are” rather than what they “say” and this leads to further delays in processing. Wording of orders is often ambiguous and while clarification is awaited, women and children live in poverty and uncertainty.

All of this is why domestic violence training must be developed along-side survivors, advocates and front line workers to develop a comprehensive and meaningful training program. The training should be made mandatory for every service provider, agency, police officer, lawyer and judge who will be in contact with a victim/survivor of domestic violence and their children. This is the only way to ensure that women and children are not revictimized and are actually protected by the very systems they are relying on to do so. It’s time for people to demand this change and pressure their government representatives to pass meaningful legislation and make funding programs that support victims a priority. Talk is cheap, women and children are dying and now is the time for action. Let’s push our government to put its money where its mouth is!

March 2

Today is the 9th anniversary of my divorce from Jason. Yes, 9th. People wonder why I continue to acknowledge this day, question why I celebrate this day and mark it as a milestone in my journey. Anyone who has escaped an abusive partner knows, that cutting the ties is so important to taking back your life, establishing autonomy and claiming your power. Receiving the divorce decree in my mailbox was one of the best days of my life and I will never forget the feeling of pure joy and vindication I felt when I opened the envelope.

I have been participating in a number of new initiatives to address and combat violence against women and rape culture in my community. One of the most validating engagements was being asked to tell my story and share my experiences in the Family and Criminal courts. Lanark County is trying to get funding for an expansion on our courthouse and have a designated Domestic Violence Court to address the high incidences of domestic violence in our communities. Being asked as a Survivor to speak to a researcher and offer my recommendations regarding the current Systems and the functionality of the courthouse itself in regards to safety for victims was very validating. Not only did it affirm for me that it is okay to speak about my experience, but also that my experiences, my knowledge and my opinions matter. This is very empowering.

As a Survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, I am often called upon to share my story, support victims and join advisory boards and advocacy committees. I love that I am able to support and empower other women to find the strength they have within themselves to move from victim to survivor. I take my role as a board member and committee member very seriously and I advocate with intention and ferocity. I will not stop advocating until there is no longer a need to do so. When women can live in safety, without fear of abuse or assault, can navigate the world with true equality and autonomy.

March 2 is an important day in my life as it marks my freedom, the severing of ties to my abuser. March 8 is International Woman’s Day and I will be celebrating that day by striking, participating in the No Women for a Day protest. I hope that other women will also participate and support and encourage other women in doing so as well.

Today is a happy day for me. A day that I feel powerful, reflective and strong. Today is a great day.

 

 

Shadow Man

People who experience trauma often have lasting effects from it; anxiety, PTSD, depression, etc. The list is long and the ailments varying in degree from person to person. It doesn’t matter what caused the trauma when you are dealing with its effects; the trauma itself  is not the problem anymore. It’s the way it has changed your life that becomes the issue. So many people suffer every day and the resources are drying up and the empathy is perfunctory; everyone has some advice to offer, but no one really gets it unless they are survivors, too.

I have had a shadow that has followed me since I was young. He is always there, just over my shoulder or standing in the darkness, watching me. Waiting for me. I never really knew why he was there, but sometimes his allure was so strong, I was tempted to follow him in to the darkness.

I know now he came to me after the first time I was sexually assaulted. I was a young girl at a home where my sister and I were cared for while my single father was at work.There were  a dozen or so kids from ages 6 months to 14 years old who went to this caregiver and we were not well supervised. I was the oldest girl at this place and there were a couple boys a bit older than me. There were also boys in the neighbourhood who would come to play. It was on a hot, sunny day when all the kids were outside playing in the yard that I was lured to the front of the house by one of the boys. Two other boys, neighbourhood kids, were waiting. The boys held my arms,  and pushed me to the ground. The other boy, who I thought was my friend, pulled down my shorts and fondled me. He put his fingers inside me. Then he held me while the other boys did the same. They laughed and teased and called me names as I cried. Eventually they let me go. I ran into the house to the bathroom downstairs (we were never allowed up in to the main part of the house) and locked the door. I hid in there for as long as I could. I cried and cried and wondered what I had done to make the boys want to hurt me. I was humiliated and full of shame; I knew it was my fault. I was so afraid that the babysitter would find out and and she would tell my dad…I would be in so much trouble if anyone found out what I had done. You see that? I blamed myself for the behaviour of those boys. They assaulted me and I felt I was to blame. It was the early 80s and Feminism was not something that even existed in my world.

I avoided the boys as best I could the rest of that day. I never told anyone what had happened. It wasn’t the last time I was assaulted by these boys and I lived with the shame, the confusion and anger. I turned it all on myself and searched for ways to appease my guilty conscience. And that is how Shadow Man came to me.

Shadow Man is the darkness, the sadness and shame that I cannot contain inside. He lurks around me, following me, reminding me that I am dirty, unworthy, loathsome and unloveable. He reminds me that I am alone, and that the only way to free myself of him is to join him in the darkness. There, I will find release from pain, a quietness.

He was a part of my life for years. I did everything I could to keep him at bay, but usually I resorted to self-destructive behaviours that really only fed him, and helped him grow stronger. As a young girl I became obsessive about keeping my room clean and in order. I tried to be perfect at school and at home and tried to stay out of the way of the older boys at the babysitters.I was anorexic in high school and college. I binge drank and experimented with drugs. I tried to be perfect, carefully doing my make up and hair every day to look like I was “pretty” and “normal”. Inside, I knew I was ugly, tarnished and unclean. Nothing I did chased Shadow Man away. I became angry, defiant and put on a facade of a strong, confident woman who said what needed to be said, did what needed to be done and had her shit together.

I suffered more trauma through my life; I was raped in high school and never reported it. I never told anyone about it until much later. I married a man who became abusive to me and my children in some of the most heinous ways; I still feel like it is unbelievable that it could have happened to me.

Shadow Man stayed with me my whole life, only leaving for a short period of time when I was and adult. I was working full time, things were quiet on the Family Court front and my kids and I were happy. I was happy, but He was still there. One day a friend of mine told me how you can tell a “spirit” to leave you alone, to go away. I was astonished; could I really do that? I suppose I wanted to believe that this Shadow Man was simply an unwanted entity who had attached itself to me. I followed my friend’s advice and I asked the Shadow Man what he wanted. I got no response that I could feel or understand. I told him he was unwelcome, that he had to leave me alone and never come back. To my surprise, he left. He was gone; I could not feel him anymore. I was so amazed and relieved!

Life was good and I was happy. I was as financially secure as I had ever been. My kids and I were in a good place and the Shadow Man became a memory.

And then my grandmother became ill and when I lost her, I felt like my whole world was crashing down. She was my best friend, my mentor, my hero. Without her I felt like I was disconnected, unstable, lost. I was exposed and Shadow Man found his way back to me; I welcomed him this time. I wanted to feel him near, to know he would be there when I was ready to fall in to the quiet, the dark and rest.

I know that I am not the only person who has experienced trauma in their lives and I know I am not the only one who battles this darkness. Trauma opens you up to it, allows it to come in to your life and haunt you. I have successfully resisted his allure many, many times, but there are still so many days when his darkness blots out the sun and swallows me. On those days, I allow myself to cry, to brood, to be angry. I allow myself to feel the pain that Shadow Man promises to take away. Some days the pain is overwhelming, the anxiety crippling. I will think that I cannot resist anymore, that I don’t even want to; I want the quiet, the peace. And then someone will remind me that I am a Survivor. A  friend, my children, or my grandmother’s voice will whisper in my ear, “One foot in front of the other, Lass. Better days ahead.”  So I allow myself to feel the sadness and anger and fear for a short time. I remind myself that I will survive it, as I have so many times before, and I will keep going. Shadow Man is here, he may always be, and I accept that. I have to find a way to live with this darkness and keep it at bay. I don’t know for how long, but today, I know that I win. And a win one day at a time is a good start.

 

 

 

 

 

We Are Human

She’s someone’s sister. Someone’s mother. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s wife.

“Men judge us by our broad hips and forget their birthplace.”

Women must be sheltered from the fierce storms of life.

In the male-dominated fields of literature and politics, women are spoken of as men’s family, or their childhood homes, or treasures for them to protect. All out value lies in that we have value to men. While they are indeed beautiful ideas, to love our mothers and our sisters, to associate the feminine with the divine cradle of life, and to want- to protect women, because the world is indeed full of fierce and destructive storms- none of these ideas make these storms stop, and none of them build a shelter big enough to house all women. We will not be safe until even women who are only children, who are childless, who are orphaned, who are alone, are not considered worthless. We will not be safe until we are not the birthplace of men, but bodies and minds capable of self-actualization. We will not be safe until we are not objects to be sheltered, but fellow builders,  participants in the creation of spaces in which to take refuge from the storm. We will not be safe until it is recognized that our value is not relational to men; we are men, men are us, and the discrepancy in the struggles we face is reflective of social injustice, not an inherent discrepancy in value.

We live in a world where fourteen women can be murdered for daring to pursue higher education. We live in a world where a teenage girl can be filmed being raped as she is vomiting, and the malicious spread of these images and the failure of the Canadian justice system will result in her suicide. We live in a world where more than one thousand Indigenous women and girls can be missing or murdered and this can be dismissed by the Canadian government. We live in a world where a woman who dares to pursue the most powerful political position in the world can be called a “nasty woman” and be judged on her looks and her demeanor rather than her qualifications for the job. We live in a world where women are not permitted to be outside unaccompanied by a man without risking being beaten and raped. We live in a world where girls are not permitted to go to school and if they defy their government and pursue an education they will be shot in the head and left to die, held as an example for other girls of what will happen if they, too, attempt to become educated. We live in a world where a woman can be beaten to death for speaking up for other women. Where a woman can receive death and rape threats for simply for speaking or creating art in a public space. We live in a world that still does not respect the dignity and importance- the value – of all women.

But we also live in a world where women can come together and lift our voices and our spirits together in hope. We live in a world where women are gathering, marching, protesting and these gatherings are getting bigger. We are getting louder. We are being heard.

The fight to have our value recognized is still being fought, and in spite of all the horrors we still face, and will face for years to come, we are winning. Those who stand against us, those who stand in our way, will not be able to stand there forever.We are many and we are powerful, and most importantly, we are human. Any arguments for continued violence against us, for our continued inequality, is an argument with that fundamental fact; We are human. As long as we know we are more than sisters, mothers, daughters and wives, more than the birthplace of men, more than treasures to be protected, that we are people in our own right, with independent an incontrovertible value, we cannot be silenced.

Note: This is an edited version of a speech written by my daughter, Em Kwissa, for the Dec. 6th vigil held in Lanark County in 2014. I have posted it with edits as I believe it is still relevant and still reflective of what women are facing today.

Action Research Change

There are some words that we use to get a reaction, to get people to take notice. Words that make it very clear what we mean and how we feel. Society does not like these words being used out in the open but this is how Rape Culture, Misogyny and Patriarchy are continuing to be normalized. This is why violence against women is still, in 2016, a rampant occurrence. This is why women are still being killed on a daily basis and people hardly bat an eye. Victim blaming and shaming keep women from reporting sexual assault and abuse; their silence is deafening.

So lets just get it out in the open; lets start talking, no shouting, in anger and demand change. Lets stop calling it “sexual assault” when its RAPE. Let’s stop saying she’s a  victim of domestic violence and say “HE IS AN ABUSER”. I want to stop hearing that women are being victims of murder, like they are active participants in their death. Let’s call it what it is; “HE MURDERED HER”, he took her life, stole her from her family and friends to accommodate his own person agenda of POWER and CONTROL. Let’s just stop being so kind to these MEN and call them out on their actions and be truthful in our adjectives. Let’s hold ourselves accountable for the way we treat victims by BLAMING them, SHAMING them and making them feel like whatever happened to them was THEIR OWN FAULT. I for one am sick and tired of being politically correct  when it comes to violence against women. It’s addressed by government and agencies as VOW (violence against women). This is what we have reduced this “issue” to; an acronym. We can do more; women DESERVE more than than being lumped into a category of “issues to address” and referred to as a VOW. It’s callous and cold and it makes me angry to hear this. I am not the only one; many women and agencies, outreach services and shelter service are angry, too. That is what ARC is about.

The Federal government has pledged to make VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN a priority and develop a national strategy. In response to this, ARC has been meeting to discuss and prioritize what we want in a National Strategy. We are discussing the justice system and how it sets women up to be re-victimized in the courts. Police need mandatory training at all levels to understand what violence against women is, the cycle of abuse and how to speak to a victim. There needs to be much more funding for organizations and agencies that provide services and support to women. This money needs to be directly allotted to this issue and not offered as a trickle down of money that never really makes it to those who need it most. There must be a mechanism for oversight and accountability for funding and for agencies receiving this money.

Aboriginal women need a specialized agenda to support their unique position in society. They have been ignored, abused, murdered and treated like second class citizens for generations. Abuse within their communities is generational and normalized. And when an Aboriginal woman is MURDERED or is MISSING, no one seems to care. It’s not given the priority that it should and, sometimes, the very people who are supposed to be protecting these women and girls are the ones RAPING and MURDERING them.

The Family Law system fails women every day. There is a seemingly deliberate lack of understanding of domestic violence. Attorney’s and judges seem indifferent to the unique situation that is the reality of a woman escaping a relationship in which she was abused and assaulted. Family Law courts do not want to address or acknowledge criminal behaviour perpetrated by an ABUSER, and this sentiment is reciprocated by the Criminal Courts. Rather than working in tandem, they work in isolation and this leaves women and children at greater risk of harm. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE falls on deaf ears in the Family Court and women and children are left caught in the wheels of a very slow, inept system that has no empathy or understanding for them. Mandatory training for judges and lawyers is what is needed and  will be included in the proposal from ARC.

Legal Aid funding needs to be increased and the test for eligibility needs to be specialized for victims of domestic violence or assault. Women should not have to deplete all their financial resources before becoming eligible for Aid. They should not have to live in abject poverty and prove their lack of assets and savings in order to be assisted. They should not be told they must sell their home, a home in which either she is living in or the abuser is and be forced in to a financial battle with her abuser that she cannot win. Women identifying as victims of domestic violence should be granted immediate assistance without a test of eligibility to at least have funds to meet with a lawyer and learn her rights.

Police need to be thoroughly trained about the cycle of abuse. Probation conditions need to be strictly enforced and victims need to be notified of all changes within those conditions. Restraining orders and conditions are not worth the paper they are written on if no one is willing to enforce them. Who is going to stand with a woman and allow her to feel safe?

Court Support Workers are under funded and over-worked. Money needs to be designated to hire more workers in each district to allow ease of access of service to victims. Particularly in rural areas, where distances between clients are great and courthouses can be a long way to travel. Funding for services in rural communities needs to be allotted more fairly and efficiently to allow shelters and victim services to properly meet the needs of the women they serve. It is sad to say in 2016, but money needs to be spent on building MORE SHELTERS for women. Wait lists and lack of beds leave women and children at risk and at the mercy of the ABUSER. Often shelters are a great distance from where the woman lives so she is pulled out of her community and support system. This is unacceptable!

Counselling for children needs to be included in the National Strategy; kids are not as resilient as people want to believe. Violence in the home affects the children as much as, and just as uniquely, as their mother and this needs to be recognized and understood. Trauma changes a child’s DNA, and this includes domestic violence. These children are not just witnesses, they, too, are victims. This trauma can change their path for the future, can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD… These kids can later on become more likely to engage in risky behaviours, abuse drugs or alcohol and have severe mental health challenges. If we have a plan to support them as soon as possible, they can recover from the trauma and go on to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. But we cant just assume that “kids are resilient’ and they will bounce back. It’s not true and it is unfair to these children to assume otherwise.

The neglect of women and children in the medical system needs to addressed. The cycle of abuse needs to be part of the training of all persons in the medical field. Posting information in exam rooms and having pamphlets on the table in waiting rooms is not effective in assisting women and children. The right questions need to be asked. Women need to be allowed to speak autonomously without the abuser in the room and their situation needs to be respected. Action needs to be taken keeping in mind the unique situation of each woman.

This also applies to Law students. Domestic violence is not a mandatory area of study and is rarely discussed in the lecture hall. The Law Society has developed a training program in 2015, but it is not mandatory for students to access it in order to graduate. This needs to change, particularly for those going in to Family or Criminal Law so that they can better serve women who have been victimized become their clients.

The root issue of violence against women is MISOGYNY. Women are still not considered equal to men, their bodies are objectified and sexualized and they are not respected as autonomous individuals. Women are paid LESS in the work force, given LESS respect in the courts and looked at as hysterical, hormonal creatures who are somehow acting out against a man. Women are thought of manipulative and “GOLD DIGGERS” and not as sentient and intelligent PEOPLE. In 2016 one would think that misogyny was a thing of the past. But it is not. We are are all socialized as children to think of girls and women as “LESS” than an boy or man. It’s time to let these stereotypes and gender roles die and create a new thought pattern in which girls are raised as equal and as valuable as boys. Where women are respected and treated with the same DIGNITY as men.

I am Somebody

I live in a rural community. Violence against women in my community is not something that has been discussed openly for generations. The way women are viewed in rural communities may look from the outside as “traditional”; homemakers, caregivers, mothers, wives, sisters. Women are not viewed as individuals with autonomy; we are possessions, objects and are only considered as part of another person; someone’s wife, mother, daughter. Never just “me”. So when a woman is living with domestic violence or she is assaulted, it is not thought of as anything more than a “family matter” or a “wrong place, wrong time” situation. Somehow she is at fault and the questions that are asked are, “What did she do?” or “Why was she there?” or “What was she wearing?” The questions of “How did this happen?” or “How do we stop this?” are left to be asked by the local shelters and women’s advocacy groups. But they fall on deaf ears.

In rural communities, violence against women is an accepted fact of life, it is ingrained in the culture and it is passed down from generation to generation. In these communities where families live so close to one another and neighbours are cousins and the whole community has grown up together, raised their children together and grown old together, it is difficult to change attitudes. It is difficult to expect that a woman could have access to appropriate services or even be acknowledged as a victim and not an instigator of the violence she has experienced. What people who live in urban ares do not understand is that rural communities are closed, tight-knit and tight-lipped. There is no openness about “differences” or desire for diversity; people like things to stay the way they are, the way they have always been and to expect change to happen is like waiting to win the lottery. The chances are slim to none. Those working to make change, to advocate for women have a very steep uphill battle that those living in urban areas find difficult to understand.

Recently there have been a number of very violent events in my community that have shocked and angered advocates and politicians. Our small “quaint” communities have become a focus in the media and government because of these events and the fact that not until women were murdered, did anyone take notice of what was happening. This is not atypical when it comes to violence against women, but in communities where these things are not talked about it has left people shocked and angry, wanting to figure out how to stop this cycle of abuse and violence from continuing.

There were three Rural Forums: in Lanark County, Renfrew County and Lennox Addington County to talk about the violence that has occurred and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. The context and motivation for these forums, which were put together quickly and expertly by Lanark County Interval House and the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Advisory Committee was this: six women were killed between September 2015 and April 2016. In Wilno on September 22, 2015 three women were killed by their abuser. In Almonte on February 10, 2016 a man, a local politician widely respected in the community,  was killed while protecting his family from his daughter’s abuser, his daughter  was severely injured by gunshot and the abuser committed suicide. In Odessa on February 14, 2016 a woman was murdered and her abuser killed himself. In Carleton Place on April 1, 2016 an abuser attempted to murder his victim  and on April 16, 2016 on Shannonville Road a woman was murdered.

All of these violent incidences were directly related to domestic violence and violence against women and they brought the issue crashing in to the face of these rural communities and left them reeling and stunned. Families are devastated and not just advocates are angry anymore. Everyone is angry and demanding action. And so the Forums were put together to get communities and agencies talking and working together to prevent further violence against women. The obstacles that women face in rural communities to access services, if there even are services in her community are vast and daunting. There is no public transportation for women to move from place to place to access support or even to escape violence. There is often no cellular service and party lines still exist in some small towns. A women who calls 911 might wait an hour for police to arrive as they are stationed in the larger communities and the vastness of their service area can leave people in danger while waiting for help to arrive. Navigation of back roads is tricky and in winter weather some roads are not even accessible. In our communities, women are often without a driver’s license and if they have one would have no access to a vehicle if their spouse has it to go to work. And in rural communities guns are accessible and present in the home as they are used for hunting and protecting livestock from predators.  Not only is this dangerous to women it adds to their fear of seeking help knowing that a rifle is hanging on a wall in the house, loaded and ready at anytime. What women would speak out against her abuser knowing that?

Practically speaking, here are the issues: Education about violence against women need to be part of our school curriculum, whether it is in discussion of what a healthy relationship looks like, to understanding consent to understanding the cycle of abuse. Education also needs to be mandatory for Police and first responders as well as lawyers and judges. There needs to be a Domestic Violence Court established in rural communities as so often women are blamed for their abuser’s crimes and held to an impossible standard of proof that the violence occurred or was not her own fault. Judges in rural communities are on the bench “forever” and they are often raised in these communities and have not educated themselves or adopted any progressive ideologies regarding VAW and are ineffective, if not harmful, when ruling on cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Police Services Act, which is currently under review, needs to include mandatory training for police about violence against women and how to approach victims appropriately. Victim blaming can no longer be acceptable in any situation and police need to be held accountable for their words and actions. Bail needs to be reviewed as many perpetrators are released and victims are not notified, as was the case in Wilno. Conditions of Release need to be stiffer and penalties for breaching those conditions need to be tougher. Also monitoring of dangerous offender while out on Parole or bail should be considered in order to keep victims safe.

Transportation needs to be available to women and school buses already on the road in all the remote areas of these communities picking up children to take them to school could also be used as transportation for women needing to access services or reach a safe place.

Local politicians need to be more engaged and aware of what is happening “behind closed doors” in their communities. They need to be willing to work with advocacy groups and be part of the discussion when it comes to strategizing about prevention of violence against women as be strong and visible advocates for social justice around women’s rights.

Communities and agencies need to engage abusers and help them break the cycle of domestic violence and abuse. Programs for rehabilitation including education and self-awareness need to be developed to help abusers understand their crimes and how to move forward in a non-violent and productive way so that they can remain in their communities and possibly rebuild relationships with their families. They need to be held accountable for their actions and be expected to do better, to be better.

The obstacles that rural communities face when trying to prevent violence against women are unique to these communities and are not easily understood by politicians and policy makers who live in and come from larger, urban areas. But if we are to stop the murder of women and stop the cycle of domestic violence and stop the victim-blaming in our small communities, politicians must be willing to open their minds and try to understand the issues we face. When our politicians and policy makers are no longer apathetic about the murder of women in these communities, people will have no choice but to wake up and do something.

“I always wondered why Somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized, I am Somebody.”