For the past few months, every front page and every newsfeed has been flooded with headlines about famous men who have allegedly used their power and influence to lure and abuse women. It’s hard to comprehend how people who are so highly regarded could be accused of doing something so heinous, but the uncomfortable truth is, these incidents are only the tip of the iceberg.  

According to Statistics Canada, half of all Canadian women have been the victims of sexual or physical abuse at least once since they were 16 years old. The numbers are hard to grasp considering most people, at least publically, would condemn any kind of violence against women.

“Although we might say absolutely, we don’t think this should ever happen to a woman, usually our first question when a woman tells us [she has been abused] or when we hear about something happening is ‘is that true?’” says Anuradha Dugal, Director of Violence Prevention Programs at Canadian Women’s Foundation.

We’ve seen it play out very publically when the first women stepped forward with allegations against radio personality Jian Ghomeshi. They were shamed and bullied online as soon as their testimony came to light. “I think the first thing is to recognize just how unlikely it is that someone is making it up,” says Dugal.

“It’s really about power — power dynamics between the victim and the abuser are so unbalanced, so it’s inevitable that the victim is questioned.”

“They are frightened they don’t have the power to make their abuser accountable, they feel shame for what has happened, they feel that they are to blame even though they are not."

In the Ghomeshi case, the second wave of criticism questioned why the alleged victims did not report the incidents to the police.  Susan Vella, Senior  Counsel at Rochon Genova LLP, who has worked with many survivors of sexual abuse over the past 25 years says so few women report physical and sexual abuse because they fear they won’t be taken seriously.  

“They are frightened they don’t have the power to make their abuser accountable, they feel shame for what has happened, they feel that they are to blame even though they are not,” she says. According to Vella, Canada’s greatest hurdle in tackling violence against women is changing attitudes toward abuse.

“The biggest issue is suspending our judgment, and when we see something that concerns us in any context, that we don’t turn a blind eye, that we make appropriate inquiries, that we make sure everything is okay.”

By doing so, we can create a safe place for victims of violence. Vella says confiding in someone about an incident of abuse is the first step toward finding support, and if the victim chooses to, taking action against the abuser.

Shift in awareness

Andrea Gunraj of the non-profit violence prevention group METRAC says a real shift in awareness will be brought on by the youngest Canadians — through educating kids with a very powerful message.

“The idea that everybody should be respected and that love is not abusive behaviour, I think is going to help reduce incidents [of violence against women] because it counteracts some of the things we might see in the media or we might see in our home where people will try to conflate violence and make it seem like it’s a normal part of the relationship,” Gunraj says.
She hopes that eventually violence against women will be considered as instinctively wrong as drunk driving or not wearing a seatbelt.

“The picture is a cautiously optimistic one,” she says. “But we have to continue being vigilant and really listening to people who survived violence to know how we need to change things.”