The murders of four women at the hands of their closest relatives may serve as a wakeup call for wider Canadian society to the social ills that those closer to traditionalist communities have long grappled with.
The convictions of Mohammad Shafia, his wife, Tooba Yahya, and his eldest son, Hamed, on Sunday followed a long trial in which evidence showed that teachers, police and social services saw repeated warning signs that the teenaged daughters of the family were at risk of life-threatening violence.
The three were found guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of sisters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia, aged 19, 17 and 13, whose bodies were found in a submerged car at a Rideau Canal lock east of Kingston in 2009. The fourth found dead in the vehicle was Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, 53, who had entered Canada illegally, posing as his cousin.
“These women were aware of the threat on their lives and they reached out but nobody listened,” said Shahrzad Mojab, a University of Toronto professor. She appeared as an expert witness at the Shafia trial and spoke to The Globe and Mail after the verdict.
But some communities heard the call to act on early warnings much sooner. Their hope is that the Shafia case will prompt their mainstream counterparts to catch up.
The 2007 murder of Muslim teen Aqsa Parvez at the hands of her father and brother prompted members of Punjabi Community Health Services in Brampton, Ont., to plot new strategies for family conflicts fuelled by ‘dishonour.’ “We sat down together with our clinical counsellors and we asked them, ‘What if Aqsa Parvez had come [here] Would we have been in a position to save her?’ ” said Baldev Mutta, the organization’s CEO.
His group now brings in whole families, whenever possible, to fully understand conflicts at home and assess the threat level to youth. It’s something he thinks his counterparts are missing.
“Mainstream organizations do not have the clinical skills to make the determination of whether an honour killing will take place or not. Often … nobody believes this kind of tragedy can take place.”
In London, Ont., a local Muslim group often goes with Children’s Aid Society officials to visit Islamic households where the children’s futures are at stake.
“It’s really different when you give them honourable alternatives so they can keep their kids but not harm them any more,” said Mohammed Baobaid, whose Islamic research centre initiated the Muslim Family Safety Project in 2004.
In the Shafia case, there were interventions by Quebec police and child-protection authorities, but none were able to save Zainab, Sahar, Geeti or their aunt Rona.
In one instance, Sahar’s teacher called a child-protection office after the teen had confessed she was afraid her father would beat her. She reached a dead end when told that because Sahar was 17, nothing could be done.
Another time, when their father was away on business, a number of Shafia children told police they had endured abuse at home. When the family patriarch returned, one of the daughters recanted her story.
Judith Laurier, a spokeswoman for L’association des centres jeunesse du Quebec, which oversees the province’s youth-protection agencies, told The Globe and Mail last week her organization would likely investigate whether they could have handled the Shafia case better.
“If a mistake was made – if, if, if – it’s important for us to make a revision of the situation,” she said.
Dr. Mojab of the U of T points to Britain and Sweden as leaders in developing strategies for dealing with family violence stemming from a patriarchal need for control. Training materials, such as video clips showing abuse scenarios, have been used extensively with police forces there and in schools. It’s time they were widely adopted in Canada, she said.
While the Shafia teens were vocal about their family problems, many young women aren’t and the onus is on front-line workers, such as teachers, to spot warning signs.
Bruises, weight loss, slipping grades, school absences and poor performance at work “are all indicators that something is happening with these women,” Dr. Mojab said. Depression and extreme forms of rebellion are also common.
When David Thomas worked as a principal in Peel Region, west of Toronto, he grappled with how to deal with students who came from families where conflict was often driven by a culture clash. One father complained to a guidance counsellor about his daughter wearing makeup and in the end decided to send her back to India.
Mr. Thomas worked with leaders of different groups to better understand cultural differences and possible warning signs from students. He’s more at ease when teachers err on the side of caution and alert Children’s Aid at the first red flag.
An added obstacle for both police and schools is once a case is referred to child services, it is difficult to follow up with the child or family in question.
“When you do make the call, they don’t have an obligation to report back to the school,” Mr. Thomas said.
A greater challenge is helping women who don’t have Children’s Aid or teachers to serve as their advocates.
Evidence in the murder trial showed that Mr. Shafia’s first wife, Rona, had actually written down the phone number of the Afghan Women’s Organization in her diary. The AWO is a Toronto-based social-support charity. It’s not clear whether she called prior to being murdered by her husband.
Adeena Niazi, the organization's founder, now frequently reflects on Rona’s case. “She had no relatives here, no support, no friends, and she cannot move,” she said. “… If she had had the support, she would be alive today.”
With reports from Timothy Appleby and John Allemang