If you look for them – and often you have to look for them, because their stories fade quickly from the headlines – you'll find the victims of domestic violence who didn't escape. Their stories are all different, but often share heartbreaking similarities of signals missed and calls for help that weren't answered.
There was the public-health nurse Zahra Abdille, who tried to escape an abusive relationship with her husband and sought refuge with her children in a Toronto women's shelter. Like many women fleeing violence, she was defeated by a creaky patchwork system of legal aid and housing support, and returned to her husband. She and her sons were found murdered in their Toronto home late last year. Her husband killed himself the same day.
In the worst case of mass murder in Edmonton, Thuy Tien Truong was killed late last December along with her son and six other people by her estranged husband, Phu Lam, who also took his life. Mr. Phu had a history of violence and had been arrested for assaulting his wife. In 2012, she had filed an emergency protection order against him, saying she was worried he would try to kill his family. Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht called the murders an "extreme case of domestic violence gone awry."
In Quebec, Maria Altagracia Dorval was also worried that her estranged husband , Edens Kenol, wanted to kill her. She reported her fears to police twice, and shortly after the last complaint she was stabbed to death in her Montreal home. Mr. Kenol was convicted of her murder and is serving a life sentence, which he's appealing. Ms. Dorval's family members have argued that the police did not do enough to prevent her murder, but last month five Montreal police officers were cleared by an ethics commission of negligence in her death.
I'd like to stop there, but I can't. Late last month, Latasha Gosling and her three children were murdered in Tisdale, Sask., by her former partner. He reportedly sent pictures of the slain children to their father before committing suicide.
These murders flash briefly before our eyes and are treated as separate, unrelated incidents, instead of symptoms of a system that still fails to adequately address violence against women. And we only know of these cases because they are the worst, most violent extreme – the tip of a dark iceberg.
On the day Ms. Gosling and her children were found dead, a report was released called Shelter Voices, outlining the challenges faced by women who seek refuge from domestic violence in Canada's shelters. In a snapshot of a typical day last November, 231 shelters across the country reported helping 3,781 women and 2,508 children. Some shelters were full to capacity, and had to find alternative emergency accommodation for women and families.
Housing is a crucial issue for women seeking to get away from violent relationships; the lack of affordable accommodation is a key reason they often return to abusive partners. Most shelters provide "first stage" refuge; they're not meant as permanent housing. But where are women supposed to go when they leave? In many parts of the country, especially rural and remote areas, the support system is threadbare, says Lise Martin, the executive director of the Canadian Network of Women's Shelters, which prepared the report. "It's hard to find subsidized housing in those parts of the country," she said in a phone interview.
In the part of Saskatchewan where Ms. Gosling lived, a shelter was under construction but was destroyed by fire and is now being rebuilt. Women in that part of the province might have to travel as far as Saskatoon to receive assistance. Keep in mind these are women who are already traumatized, and might have children in tow.
The answer, according to Ms. Martin and others, is a national strategy on violence against women and girls. At the moment, support across the country is a hit or miss, and this is not a game where we can afford to miss. Too many women already fall through the cracks, or are afraid to seek help. (According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 fewer than one-third of incidents of partner abuse were reported to police.)
Ms. Martin's organization and others have drafted a blueprint strategy, which is being presented to Health Minister Rona Ambrose. It calls for a comprehensive, national system of prevention, education, training for police and those who work in the justice system, and crucially, increased financial assistance for legal aid and housing support so that women who flee abuse can remain free and safe for good.
Recently, there's been a lot of talk about violence against women, but far less action. "Talk is great, and there's been some momentum, but there hasn't been real change on the ground," says Ms. Martin. "We have to go beyond the rhetoric and realize this is an issue that needs to be addressed now."