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We must all work to stop violence against women: Senator Dasko
December 15, 2021
OPINION
image Donna Dasko
Donna Dasko
ISG - (Ontario)

On the 32nd anniversary of the December 6 École Polytechnique massacre, we were reminded again of the huge toll that violence against women takes on our society.

This year, as we assess the damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus is on domestic violence, with new research showing that femicide is on the rise. According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, a group focused on measuring and understanding the causes and consequences of femicide, 92 women and girls were killed in Canada in the first six months of 2021, up from 78 during the same period in 2020 and 60 in 2019.

The federal department Women and Gender Equality Canada has also released data on the rise of gender-based violence during the pandemic. These include numbers from the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, a network of more than 70 shelters, showing a 20% increase in demand for intake between March and September 2020. Also in Ontario, the Assaulted Women’s Helpline reported a 65% increase in calls between October and December 2020 compared to the same period the previous year.

In October, I worked with the Environics Institute to conduct a national survey examining opinions on issues facing women in Canada. We found that domestic violence is seen as the most important problem, even more so than economic issues like equal pay and poverty. A total of 83% of Canadians — 86% of women and 80% of men — say violence in the home is a very important problem facing women in Canada today. Among women, concern is high in all age groups, in all regions and among all backgrounds.

In addition, the survey finds that 77% of Canadians — 82% of women and 72% of men — see violence against women in society at large as very important.

Canadian’s concerns about violence are not declining over time. Back in 1992, 79% of Canadians viewed domestic violence as a very important problem for women, and 77% viewed societal violence the same way. If anything, public awareness of these issues is increasing.

So, what can be done? 

Federal, provincial and municipal governments and non-governmental organizations such as the Canadian Women’s Foundation and the YWCA have been active in the space for decades.

Public awareness campaigns can be launched by any level of government, directed at the general population or specific target groups. December 6 itself is a huge public awareness commemoration, falling within the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence that begins on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and ends on December 10, World Human Rights Day.

Counselling services and shelter supports are necessary.

The provinces have supported these services for many years. Recently, for example, Quebec announced free consultation services for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. And in February 2021, Ontario committed $550,000 for housing for Indigenous women and their children in Sault Ste. Marie to support those fleeing domestic violence who are homeless or at risk of homelessness during COVID-19.

The federal government has committed $200 million over five years to multiple activities fighting gender violence including prevention and awareness, supporting survivors, particularly in Indigenous communities, and justice initiatives like tackling online sexual exploitation of children. The feds have committed to dealing with the seemingly intractable sexual assault issues in the Canadian Forces and the RCMP. And, last but not least, over $30 million is devoted to data collection and sharing.

Legislation can be important too. Take the Divorce Act, for example. For many years, the “best interests of the child” formed the basis of considering how “child custody” was determined. But for the first time in 2019, changes to divorce legislation included a requirement that the presence of violence in the home had to be considered by the courts when determining the child’s best interests and when making decisions about which parent will receive custody.

Fighting violence against women requires the combined efforts of governments, civil society and the public. The fact that so many Canadians are keenly sensitive to the issue means that individual Canadians will act and speak up against violence and will support the tough measures that will move us forward in the post-COVID era. 

Senator Donna Dasko is a former pollster. She represents Ontario in the Senate.