A huge step in the right direction

As powerful as they are, no social media campaign will ever save a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Battered women facing escalating violence in the home do not, dare not share their stories online.

But a new and comparable media-savvy force has emerged to speak for those who have no voice.

It’s the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, based out of the University of Guelph’s Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence. 

After decades of inaction on violence against women in Canada, it’s a huge step in the right direction.

The project has begun counting femicides across the country for the first time ever, and tracking each case as it proceeds through our courts and the media. How many women are killed every year? What were the warning signs? How did the community respond? Who are these people?

It will focus our attention on a problem Canadians seem to think long-solved, ‘fixed’ by a string of women’s shelters dating back to the early 1970s. But those shelters continue to be built and filled. They’ve become part of our landscape, numbering more than 625. And still, about every five or six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner.

We don’t know how many because we’ve never conducted a national count. 

For some reason these crimes have always been treated as random tragedies, spontaneous crimes of passion. Unpreventable.

That’s not what those on the front lines of domestic violence believe. They know that femicides are most often the tip of an iceberg, the tragic end result of prolonged violence in the home. 

Sgt. Dave Dunbar of Hamilton’s domestic violence unit told the Globe and Mail recently that they get 18 calls a day. And Dunbar warns his officers not to dismiss even those calls that seem innocuous. Because what may begin as a ‘harmless’ verbal dispute often turns into something more toxic, more violent.

“I can tell you right now that there is always an escalation,” Dunbar said.

For every woman who ends up dead, countless more are abused every day. Professor Myrna Dawson, the spokeswoman for this ground-breaking project, says its ultimate goal is to find a way to prevent the killings from happening; to stop the violence before it becomes fatal.

“The reality is these are not disputes,” Dawson told the Globe. “Intimate femicides rarely occur out of the blue.”

That’s why putting numbers, and faces, to this issue, is so critical.

The founders of Canada’s first women’s shelters learned this lesson long ago. Back in the early ‘70s — when almost no one believed we needed shelters at all — there were no statistics on violence against women. It was a personal shame, a private affair between a husband and his wife. Police didn’t track assaults according to gender, and were loath to intervene. It wasn’t their business. 

If a woman chose to leave an abusive partner, she and her children had nowhere to go. 

So they stayed. And some died.

Faced with such ignorance and complacency, the first shelter founders pulled statistics together as best they could, keeping track of the women they helped, and widely sharing what they knew. Their data, meagre as it was, fuelled a remarkable series of changes.

Governments started funding shelters and rape-crisis centres; rewriting property and marital laws; creating laws to deal with criminal harassment. Police and courts changed how they operated. There was widespread public awareness, and reason to hope that change was coming.

Unfortunately, a 1993 Stats Can survey was the first and last of its kind. No more attempts were made to measure the problem on a national scale, and it dropped off our radar. 

And if you don’t measure a problem, if you can’t clearly delineate a problem, then you have no problem. Problem solved.

The issue itself was neutered. Politicians started calling it “family” violence and “domestic abuse,” effectively killing any need for uncomfortable conversations about male behaviour.

And so ended our public conversation, briefly rallying once a year on the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. 

Which is why this new project offers such hope.

For the first time in our history, we are counting, coalescing and combing through what to date have been treated as disparate and isolated events.

Just as the #MeToo movement exposes how commonplace sexual misconduct is in our society, so, too, will the femicide project change the way we look at male violence against women. The collective weight of these womens’ stories promises to challenge attitudes and shine new light on a very old issue.

Make no mistake; this is a game-changer. Follow this project on Twitter at @CAN_Femicide

It won’t save the lives of those it studies. But it may well save the lives of those who follow.

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