Violence against women—will it ever end?
by Gwynne Hunt
(based on excerpts from Ramapge: the pathology of an epidemic)
Violence against women is a well-documented fact. I have spent the last six years researching and compiling a database of names of missing and murdered women and children. It started with Mary Billy’s Facing the Horror: The Femicide List. Doing research for a play I was working on, I tracked the book to a dusty shelf at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC. After contacting Mary she agreed to send me the original newspaper clippings she had gathered over ten years of sitting at her kitchen table doing the research alone.
Mary’s collection of names and stories were self-published to a poor response. It seems nobody cared. When I got the book I sat down and read the 400-page manuscript and as Mary had predicted it was a case of facing the horror. I read page after page with dread and sadness. Sometimes Mary’s pain is an overwhelming shadow on the pages. I found myself running my finger over a name like you do when you find a loved one’s name on a headstone. There was so much sadness on the pages I was overwhelmed with grief. Mary had collected and told the stories of 1, 850 women murdered since 1989 when Marc Lepine went on a rampage and killed thirteen students and one female employee at Ecole Polytechnique, Universite de Montreal.
When the newspaper clippings arrived in carefully labeled photo albums I knew I had to archive her work and began to cross-reference, research and start a database. I realized I could not only become ‘the keeper of the list’, I had to do something with it. For five years now we have held a Memory March to honour and inform. I’ve written two plays that have been performed around the lower mainland, Vancouver and the Fraser Valley; Mary’s List and Missing. I have just completed a book called Rampage; the pathology of an epidemic and in it I tell the stories, present the list and offer some causes and concerns. Why are we not ending the violence?
Not that I care for labels but I would have to define myself as a post-modern feminist-activist seeking social harmony rather than gender equality. That is not always popular with die-hard radical feminists who only wanted to end violence against women when the journey began back in the seventies. But all the bra-burning and ‘womyn-only’ events have not changed the way society sees and treats women. I no longer think it is ideal to blame one gender. We must put the responsibility for the actions of the movement on the individual rather than the government. We have to stop placing blame.
Reports from Canadian women reveal that 81% have been pushed, shoved or grabbed; 61% have been threatened or hit; 44% have had something thrown at them; 38% have been beaten or choked; 35% were slapped, 27% were kicked, beat or hit, and 16% were sexually assaulted. Between 1994 and 2003, a history of family violence was present in 6 out of 10 spousal abuse cases. It is a generational problem and the cycle needs to be broken. But a new statistic that has arisen that should cause great sadness is that older women are more likely to be assaulted by family members then older men. In fact four out of ten older women will be abused and touched by violence.
Sexual assault and abuse pervasively run through this country like a quiet stream. Studies show that among adult Canadians 53 % were sexually abused as children and something we rarely talk about is that 31% of men were sexually abused. It is no wonder we live in violent and broken societies. A 2005 report by the Canadian Centre for Justice tracks family violence and reports on the effect the statistics have on our communities. It was discovered that on any typical day in 2004, there were 6,000 women and children in shelters, the majority of which were there to escape abuse.
Women are more likely to miss work later in life if they experienced violence in their lives. Health-related costs to sexual abuse and violence reached into the billions of dollars by the nineties. Our prisons are full of men and women who committed crimes while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Approximately 80% of major crimes are committed while under the influence. The majority of people with addictions come from violent or abusive backgrounds. We go around and around, slapping band aid solutions on a gaping wound that cannot he healed.
Child sexual abuse is not something you can ‘get over’ with a few visits to the counselor. But there is a lot more than sexual abuse that is keeping this country sick and troubled; abandonment issues can cause problems in later life. Many children are in foster care, given up for adoption, left unprotected by a parent and lose a loved one at an early age. Even being left in the hospital at a young age can have traumatic outcomes.
However we can’t blame the parents and the caregivers, it is time for the wounded to take responsibility for themselves and find a way to be productive, healthy members of society. Too many people shelve their abuse, neglect or the violence and never deal with it. You have to. We need to be aware of the issues that affect people before we can change the role that society plays.
Sexual assault is a difficult issue to deal with but what exactly is sexual assault? The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as forcing someone to engage in sexual intercourse or any other sexual act, not stopping sexual contact when asked to and any kissing, fondling, touching, oral/anal sex or sexual intercourse without consent.
Sexual abuse involves using a child for sexual purposes; fondling, inviting a child to touch or be touched sexually, intercourse, rape, incest, sodomy, exhibitionism, or involving a child in prostitution or pornography. If you think about it, it would be hard not to know someone who has been subject to one or several of the above definitions. It would seem that the 53 % of women and 31% of men is a low number given the definitions.
This is a societal problem but the ability to stop this abuse and violence is in the home where we know that children under the age of twelve are most likely to be sexually assaulted. And it is not of any surprise that 97% of all sexual assaults are at the hands of men and as only 20% are stranger assaults we only have to look at our fractured families to find the sickness. 64% of sexual assaults take place in the home
We first have to recognize the role we play and then take steps to stop the violence and abuse. Abuse and neglect cause a mental disorder and you can’t just ‘suck it up’ and ‘get on with life’. If you are a survivor, and most of us are, take some steps to heal yourself and then you can help others in your family by example. Break the cycle, break the silence.
Recognize that you don’t want to stay stuck in the place you are in and quit feeling sorry for yourself, quit masking your feelings with drugs and alcohol; quit running away. Recognize that you have a legitimate reason for being angry but you need to forgive the abuser and yourself in order to heal and move on. There are no simple answers to healing a broken soul. Take the first step; recognize you are broken and then seek ways to become whole. We can stop the violence, neglect and abuse one brave person at a time.
Society needs honour women; in their roles as mothers, wives, sisters, grandmas, aunts. The stigma of being a sex trade worker or drug addict needs to be addressed with love and compassion. We need to quit looking at women who are violated and murdered and think, ‘that won’t happen to me—I live in a good neighborhood, I don’t sell my body or hitchhike or live on a reserve’. That type of racist, blame-thinking keeps us feeling superior and untouchable. And yet domestic violence is the reason most women are murdered.
When was the last time you stood up at a party and admonished a joke-teller who was telling demeaning jokes about women, or about anybody? When was the last time you checked the video games your son was playing—violent games that award scores for killing ‘hookers’?
We are all responsible for the missing women and the murdered women and children. We should not allow violent material, pornography and sexist video games in our homes. Our boys are growing up with less respect for women than their fathers had and that is a scary thought.
We have to change the language we use. We need to quit allowing pornography into our homes and boycott movies that desensitize rape and murder. We have to stop buying products from companies that produce commercials that objectify women. An obsessive addiction to pornography has been linked to serial killers but at the very least the violence we absorb is turning our children into uncaring violence junkies.
Mary Billy believes that we won’t see a decline in violence because, as she says, “We live in a patriarchal society and any time we forget that, we are dreaming in technicolour. Even our police system is a semi-military organization. It is well-known that over one-third of all female police officers, firefighters and military women are raped or suffer sexual harassment.”
Homicides of women appear to be down slightly but violence reports are higher. Statistics Canada has shown a dip in the numbers of women killed every year from over 200 to between 165-175. Seventeen percent of Canadians accused of murder in 2006 were accused of murdering a spouse of former spouse—72% of the victims were women. Over the eleven previous years, the rate was 82%. But I maintain that there are so many missing women we cannot determine if they are dead and if we knew the real numbers, they would be up not down. How do we know that a large number of missing women are not dead? Serial killers are smarter, sneakier and more aware of how to hide bodies then ever before.
There has been a lot of controversy over Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside murdered and missing women. It took years of agitating by family members and friends to get the police to do anything about the large numbers of missing women. Many argued that had the women been from middle-class or nice neighborhoods the cops would have been looking for them a lot sooner. That is true. If sixty-nine (the number changes depending on what agency is involved but sixty-nine was the highest number to appear on the list at one time) women disappeared from a good neighbourhood there would have been search parties. There would have been a public outcry, wouldn’t there?
Canadians have to stop looking at murdered women as belonging to individual ethnic groups or from sharing particular socio-economic backgrounds, certain neighborhoods, or as being involved in a dangerous trade, or having a particular addiction; all women are in danger. Lines should not be drawn. It keeps us too focused on coming up with excuses. We need to focus on the reasons that we allow such anger and violence against women. We not only allow it, we breed it. The youngest domestic violence victim between 2003-2005 in Ontario was only fifteen, the oldest victim was 89.
The same report listed the most common form of death was stabbing which is personal—the rate was 41 %. As long as we base ending violence on funding we will never make significant changes. Women’s groups compete with each other to fund programs. Strong feminists, who used to fire-walk, now simply circle the flames poking the ashes with sticks. It is my experience that women’s groups do not support one-another. There should be no competition in the war against ending violence.
As I interviewed grassroots workers for my book and compiled the list, I felt more despair and frustration because I could not find a definitive answer. We have problems with our justice system—with ineffective restraining orders, light sentences, early parole. We label and dissect women, objectify and demean women. We look to the government to solve all our community problems—hands out-stretched for more money to fix this or end that; instead of taking control of the problem in our own homes first, in our hearts and in our lives. We are so used to quick-fixes we get lost in the fine balance of healing our communities. We have lost our vision in many cases.
Women stood together to get the right to vote, in the sixties and seventies women stood together to get better pay, better child care, health care, education and to end violence. Huge goals have been achieved in pay equity, child care, health care and education but we are stuck with the violence we grew up with still surrounding us. In that respect, we have not come a long way.
We need to respect the missing and murdered women with memorials—the memorials we have now across Canada are mostly for the 14 women killed in 1989; a few for individual women who were murdered. Where is the memorial –the black wall that would stretch across this country naming the dead, paying tribute to women who have been killed? Even in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when we hold our marches and walk to Thornton Park—we sit on benches that have been erected to honour the fourteen women killed in Montreal. What about the women killed by Willie Pickton—the women murdered and taken from the streets—where is their memorial?
Feminist Marilyn French once said that’ patriarchy is tricky and we mustn’t underestimate it. It is enormously difficult to reduce violence’. We have to begin. Every member of society has to take responsibility. Eliminate the negative words we call women. Don’t ask what she was wearing when she was raped. Don’t feel good and safe because she was in the wrong part of town. Do not get comfortable in your home—most women die there. Do not get comfortable with your age—more grandmothers are being killed than ever before. It is part of that problem we have with fractured families, a lot of time grandma is the one taking care of the neglected angry grandson.
In 2004 a 14 year old mentally troubled boy raped and defiled his grandmother in Winnipeg. Because he can’t be named, neither can she—she is on my list as 79 year old unnamed grandmother. I want to honour her. Her grandson smothered her and her nude body was spray painted and stuffed into a closet. She had been repeatedly raped and disfigured with a knife following her death. Even her dog had been poisoned. She struggled fiercely to survive and we can only imagine her suffering. He got six years. Lucky for us, he did not get out in 2010 because he has not cooperated in prison—he is frequently caught with pornography in his cell and masturbating in front of female guards. But he will get out and he will live next door to one of us.