Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on January 4, 2018
If 2017 is the year of #MeToo, then could 2018 be the year that we finally tackle the silence surrounding domestic violence and its pervasiveness in society? Could this be the year when domestic violence victims no longer hide in the shadows but instead come forward and demand their tormentors be held responsible: #MeTooDV, perhaps?
But of course, Twitter did have that moment in 2014 when it came alive to tell the story of domestic violence following the release of the video of NFL-er Ray Rice knocking his fiancée out. His contract was terminated by the Baltimore Ravens and his fiancée became his wife. He hasn’t played professionally since. The hashtag #whyIstayed (which later evolved into #whyIleft) became prominent in helping to explain why Rice’s partner, Janay Palmer, not only stayed but went on to marry the former football player.
Yet, unlike the #MeToo campaign, the voices of domestic violence victims did not continue to come forward.
Bailey Gerrits, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, has been studying domestic violence for her thesis. She’s also been asked about what’s next after #MeToo. Like me, she sees similarities between domestic violence and sexual violence.
“There is no ontological difference between the falsely-entitled person, likely a man, harassing or sexually abusing a colleague, friend, or stranger and the falsely-entitled person, likely a man, sexually assaulting or hitting their intimate partner, often a woman.
“Disconnecting these violences is a foundational myth of rape culture,” she says.
So, if we accept #MeToo, then we also must accept #whyistayed, #whyileft and, by extension, #mmiw (the hashtag associated with missing and murdered Indigenous women) — because, as Gerrits points out, these are all different forms of privilege and oppression that are factored into experiences of violence against women.
Domestic violence in Canada is a major public-policy issue, but the silence surrounding it is staggering. According to Statistics Canada, domestic violence cost Canadians $7.4 billion in 2009, or $220 per Canadian.
In Winnipeg, the statistics suggest the number of calls police respond to for domestic violence are increasing yearly. In 2016, domestic violence calls were up seven per cent from 2015, with 16,104 calls. Of those calls, the vast majority involved adult men as the perpetrators.
Much like the case with sexual-assault calls, the public is seldom made aware when police respond to a domestic-violence call. As Gerrits explains, it’s not part of the police communications plan. “Many police forces may know that domestic violence is a large problem — some have dedicated units or see more domestic violence calls than other categories of calls,” she explains. “Yet these same police forces sometimes do not let the public know of the sheer amount of domestic violence calls.
“It supposedly doesn’t fit with their communication goals — the police know who committed the crime (the husband/boyfriend/partner). While I firmly believe that Canada needs to revisit the role of police, their funding and governance, current configurations of police can do more to educate the public around the scope of, specifically, domestic violence.”
By talking more about the prevalence of those 16,000 domestic violence calls, the silence around the violence can be lifted.
A CBC report in October suggests that while the government revised the Domestic Violence and Stalking Act to make it easier to get protective orders, the numbers of orders granted didn’t change after the new legislation was introduced.
This doesn’t surprise Kelly Gorkoff, who works at the University of Winnipeg in criminal justice and also worked training Winnipeg police following the murder of two Indigenous women in 2000, who were killed after they called 911.
As Gorkoff puts it, how can we expect to “change the way judges judge? Or case law that is inherently masculinist?”
As is the case in sexual-assault crimes, it’s difficult to get a conviction in domestic assault cases, particularly because women are often reliant on the perpetrator for economic survival and fearful of the consequences if they do leave. The statistics bear witness to this. Women are more likely to be killed after they’ve left a violent situation.
Consider the fate of Rhonda Lavoie. In 1995, she was abducted by her estranged husband Ronald, who took her to Gimli and killed her before taking his own life. Prior to this incident, she had warned police that he had been violent, but she was offered no protection. Her death became the subject of an inquiry in Manitoba in 1998, which resulted in wholesale changes to the way police and justices handle domestic violence. Critics suggest that despite the inquiry and subsequent changes, the situation has not really improved much.
It would be nice to think that after the optimism generated in 2017 by the #MeToo movement’s exposure of Hollywood’s long-entrenched predatory system and the momentum of hope it created for women, that at long last gendered violence will be taken seriously.
But when news broke on Christmas morning that the bodies of two little girls were found in Oak Bay, B.C., their lives senselessly snuffed out, it’s hard to remain positive.
The six-year-old and four-year-old were in the centre of a custody dispute. Their father is in hospital with self-inflicted wounds; their mother had asked for a protection order because her estranged husband had once threatened to blow up the house over money issues, but no such order was issued. Andrew Berry’s parenting was the subject of separate investigations in 2015 and 2016, which resulted in his visits with the children being supervised for a week or two. No charges have been laid in connection with the girls’ deaths.
Could 2018 see more awareness of, and a greater focus on, domestic violence? Perhaps. But for Chloe and Aubrey Berry’s mother, Sarah Cotton, it will be a year of incredible grief.
Shannon Sampert is the director of EvidenceNetwork.ca and an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg.
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