Throughout our recent history, there have been events that have compelled us to reflect on one of the great scourges in our society – the phenomenon of men killing women.
We are experiencing one of those “events” now – the COVID-19 pandemic, which has precipitated a deadly rise in domestic violence and the murder of women by men. There have been at least 10 such killings in the past few months. In turn, this has provoked earnest commentary about the need to respond.
You’ll forgive women, particularly those of a certain age, if they remain cynical about the prospects of anything happening to bring about meaningful change. After all, if the mass murder of women by a Montreal man couldn’t motivate our political leaders to finally recognize the deep, systemic problem in our culture that his rampage represented, what hope is there that the steady drip, drip, drip of everyday killings and beatings of women and girls is going to do anything? A woman is killed in Canada by her intimate partner approximately every six days.
In the aftermath of the slaughter of 14 innocents by Marc Lépine at the Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989, the federal government established a committee to examine the issue of violence against women. It was given no budget to travel the country and honestly investigate the matter. Instead, it had to hope those truly invested in this issue would come and see them. Despite its limitations, the panel still managed to produce a document that, for the first time, spoke to the plight of women locked in often violent and coercive relationships.
Entitled The War Against Women, the report from the Subcommittee on the Status of Women made 25 recommendations that are as relevant today as they were at the time. Most of them were ignored and remain so today.
“Some of the testimony was gut-wrenching to listen to,” remembers Dawn Black, the former NDP MP from British Columbia who was a co-author of the report. “The stories were horrible and sadly, many of them could be told through the voices of women today.”
The panel proposed several things, including a national education campaign around the issue of violence against women – one that would also make its way into school curriculums. It urged the federal government to take a lead role in ensuring there was adequate funding for agencies providing services to abused women and children. It called for treatment programs for violent men and a task force to examine the issue of family violence in Indigenous communities. Finally, it called for a royal commission into the matter, one that would be properly resourced.
Most if not all of the directives were greeted with a big blank stare from the male-dominated House of Commons.
Much of the testimony found in the report is prescient and spot on. Patricia Marshall, who was executive director of the Metropolitan Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children in Toronto at the time, told the federal committee that the country simply didn’t understand how insidious a problem intimate partner brutality and aggression was.
“We do not get it as a nation,” she said. “We need a national understanding of the nature of violence … the pervasiveness, the impact, the political, social and health costs that women are paying and we as a society are paying.”
In its conclusion, the committee said Canadian society had no alternative but to work toward a “permanent, effective solution to the endemic problem of violence against women.”
That was in 1991, almost 30 years ago. And very little has been done in the interim to deal with this issue. There are still not enough shelter spaces to accommodate the legions of women who need sanctuary from the vile, low-life cowards who prey on them.
No, today violence against women remains largely a women’s problem. It is up to them to fundraise to underwrite the costs associated with the running of these shelters. It’s up to them to continue pressing for change, even while the urge to give up must be overwhelming. Men, meantime, mostly stay silent about the need to deal with this emergency.
Security of the person is a fundamental tenet of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one that is denied to too many women in our society.
“Women in this country are being let down by the federal government,” Ms. Black told me this week. “It has been amply demonstrated by those who work in the field how inadequate funding levels are to deal with this crisis and yet nothing is done about it.”
Ms. Black paused.
“I really don’t want to lose hope, but I have to tell you it’s very, very hard.”
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