Addressing domestic violence
The number of domestic violence occurrences reported to police in Hamilton soared by 70 percent between 2007 and 2010, rising to 3,798 from 2,1891. Experts estimate that less than one-in-four domestic violence incidents2 are reported to police. Violence against women includes not only domestic violence, but also sexual violence (reported sexual offences increased by seven percent in Hamilton in 20113), and other forms of abuse. The impact of violence against women (VAW) is felt not only by individual women but also by their children and partners, other family members, and the community at large. It devastates women’s lives and isolates them from their communities. The cost to society is huge: a staggering $4.2 billion annually for health care, criminal justice, social services, and lost wages and productivity, according to estimates by The Canadian Women’s Foundation4.
In Hamilton concern for women’s safety is shared by a wide range of agencies working individually and together on the issue.
The Woman Abuse Working Group (WAWG), a community coordinating committee of more than 20 agencies from the legal system and social services, has been tackling these issues for two decades. WAWG’s public awareness campaigns have targeted high school students, teachers, and dental hygienists – who can often see signs of violence hidden to others. In May, the coalition sponsored a contest for students to produce a public service ad about consent. The winning “Only Yes Means Yes” video was shown before all feature films at Hamilton’s Ancaster and Mountain Cineplex screens for two weeks.
Safe shelter is one of the key barriers that keeps women from fleeing abusive situations and some local progress has been made in housing. Emergency VAW shelter beds and some transitional apartments have been added recently, along with supportive housing units for Aboriginal women and children. There has also been an increased investment in affordable housing. But even with these additions, shelters still have to turn women and children away, funding for transitional housing remains unsustainable, and there are long waiting lists for longer-term subsidized housing.
Provincially, the Domestic Violence Action Plan (which came out in 2005 and was updated in 2008) and subsequent work by the sector’s Domestic Violence Advisory Council has sparked improvements in the child welfare and court support systems. As well, after broad consultation with the VAW sector, the Ontario government announced its Sexual Violence Action Plan in March 2011. This province-wide strategy looks at leadership and accountability, preventing sexual violence, improving services, and strengthening the criminal justice response to sexual violence.
These broader efforts support the many agencies throughout the community that are meeting the urgent needs of families living with violence today – and working to end violence against women in the future.
This year, the WAWG coalition is building a report card that will help identify the scope of violence against women in Hamilton, discover gaps in service and solutions, and document progress. The group is also working with survivors of violence (especially mothers) to focus its next community awareness campaign on the child witness aspect of violence.
Recognizing that men’s attitudes and male leadership play a pivotal role in addressing violence against women, a group of 35 of Hamilton’s male leaders – including agency CEOs, police officials, business leaders, clergy, and others – are working to develop a strategy to move Hamilton forward on violence prevention. With help from Interval House, the men are examining the reality of male violence and exploring ways they might use their roles as male community leaders to create systemic change.
These are just a few examples of many initiatives underway across the community in the continuing battle against a problem that remains pervasive.
Medora Uppal, Director of Operations, YWCA Hamilton and Kristene Viljasoo, Director Women’s Services, Good Shepherd Centre, Co-Chairs of Hamilton’s Woman Abuse Working Group.
Clare Freeman, Executive Director of Interval House of Hamilton.