The decision to leave a situation of domestic violence is an incredibly difficult one for women. It can take years of abuse to finally get to the point where they decide that they to leave. Besides the emotions they may still have for their abuser, they also have to consider what effect it will have on their children, how they will survive financially and socially, and most basically, where are they going to go? This can be especially difficult for Aboriginal women, who suffer abuse at a much higher rate and also have to deal with issues of disenfranchisement and culture. Women’s shelters across Canada are a vital tool that allow women to escape from domestic violence and escape homelessness. These shelters allow women and their children a place to go when they can no longer stay at home. These stays can last from a few days to months, and generally involve keeping the identity of it’s occupants hidden, to protect them from retaliation from their abusers.
In doing research into women’s shelters across Canada, I came to be very shocked and depressed. There is a stunning lack of women’s shelters across Canada, and the lack is greatest in the north and rural areas, where the need is strongest. As one might expect, there are more shelters in large urban centers, like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, but in the north and rural areas, they are few and far between. Take a look at the Rave Project map of shelters and you see the distribution is very clustered (http://www.theraveproject.com/index.php/help/shelter_map/canada/), and grows thinner and thinner the further north you go (Obviously, the population is densest in large urban areas, but the need for shelters is not solely determined by population density).
The North and rural areas are where the Aboriginal populations are the highest and the need is greatest. Aboriginal women are subject to violence and abuse at home at much higher rates than the rest of the women in this country (see previous post for stats), and the lack of an escape route is a key factor in their inability to escape the cycle of violence . Having to travel hundreds of kilometers or even half way across the province could seem daunting. Especially for aboriginal women on reserves, whose “status”, and thus access to government programs and support, is tied to the geography of their band and reserve. Added with the other pressures and complexities of such a life altering decision, and you can see how this makes it much harder for them to work up the courage to leave; if you have nowhere to go, how can you contemplate escape?
Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that all of the women’s shelters are charity organizations. Each and every one had a donation button on their website, and they are all in need of financial assistance from the public to stay open. This is in no way a knock on charities and on the volunteers that staff them; they generally do wonderful work, and obviously provide a much needed service. In fact, so much needed that they are continually full and unable to meet the demand. “One grim statistic stood out. On the day of the survey, Canadian shelters turned away 286 women and 205 children. There simply wasn’t room. (Ontario’s auditor general Bonnie Lysyk found emergency shelters turned away 15,000 women — 56 per cent of those who sought help — in her 2013 annual report.)” (1). If over half the women who need to use a shelter are turned away, clearly charity alone is not enough to handle the situation. This means those women either had to stay at home and face continued abuse or they face homelessness, if they had already left their abuser. (Another option is of course staying with friends or relatives, but this is usually not helpful, because it becomes very easy for the abuser to track them down, especially in smaller communities like reserves, where everyone knows every one else).
The issue here is funding from the government.Despite being charities, shelters receive most of their funding from various levels of government. In 2013, the federal government pledged 600 million dollars over 5 years towards shelters across Canada, or roughly 120 million a year (2). Assuming they have kept their word (a very big if, but we shall concede the point for arguments sake), that money is still for all types of shelters, from women’s shelters to homeless shelters, etc, and according to the same article, the women’s shelters receive less than other types (2). And thus aboriginal shelters would receive an even smaller fraction. And there are indications that aboriginal shelters are underfunded compared to non-aboriginal shelters (5). Still, that might sound like a lot of money, until you consider there are nearly 600 shelters for abused women alone, according to StatsCan (3). Even is they received all that money for themselves, that’s only 200 000 dollars per shelter, and that is nowhere near enough to provide year round care for up to 30 clients at a time. Shelters also receive funding from other levels of government, for example, in Alberta, the provincial government contributed another 27 million dollars to women’s shelters (4). And they also receive funding from municipal governments, and presumably grants for non-profit organizations. However, clearly, it is not nearly enough to meet the need if over half of the women who gather the courage to leave their abuser have to be turned away.
To look at it from a different angle, if you live in a major metropolitan city, how much did the government spend on building a new hockey arena? I guarantee you it is more than 120 million dollars, which is the total the federal government spent on all shelters across the nation. Does it make sense that the government spends more on building arenas, which are not considered public property by any stretch of the imagination, than it does on caring for abused women (not to mention men, and the homeless, and halfway houses, etc)? The federal budget for 2014 was 279.2 billion dollars (wikipedia), which means that it spent around 0.043 percent of the budget on shelters (again, all shelters) for our most disadvantaged citizens. The budget for the military in 2013 was 17.9 billion (6), or over 149 times as much; the budget for overseas operations alone was 476 million. This is not to bash the military in any way, just to serve as an example of where priorities seem a bit out of whack. I am not saying there is no need for a strong military, or that taking part in the “war on terror” is not an important commitment, but there are many Canadian women, especially Aboriginals women, who need care and aid, and they are not receiving it.
There is one other thing I discovered during my research that I wanted to address. I found a distressing tendency for this issue to be politicized. Any discussion of spending issues is bound to be political, and government spending should be discussed. What distressed me was the use of women’s shelters as fodder for gender politics. To me, while gender is obviously part of the discussion on women’s shelters and abuse, gender politics is totally inappropriate when discussing sheltering and protecting abused women. Do you think these women care about feminism versus masculinism or terminology issues when fleeing another beating from a spouse? I certainly don’t! I think anyone who uses this issue to push any ideology or an “ism” (and there were certainly people on both sides of the issue using it) is doing a grave disservice to these women. Certainly issues around gender and culture belong in the larger issue of abuse, but shelters are about helping and protecting real people, not ideas and ideologies. (And for the record, this is in no way a denial of the need for shelters for men also, that is another very real, very serious issue.) Domestic abuse is not political, it is personal, ideas do not get black eyes or broken bones.
This post has focused on aboriginal women, but make no mistake, this is an issue for all women, it is just worse for aboriginals. The lack of options for woman who is looking to escape an abusive relationship is akin to condemning them to suffer more abuse. A fifty percent turn away ratio is unacceptable, especially in a country so rich. Canada is a wonderful country, full of loving, caring people. This is not a case of incivility, it is a case of misplaced priorities of the government. The fact that shelter’s continue to operate on donations and volunteer work demonstrate that Canadians do care about the suffering of abused women. I am not advocating spending more money or increasing the deficit, but we need to change the way the government spends its resources. We must make the government understand that this is the case, and force it to bring it’s spending more in line with the values that we have as a society: caring for one another, especially in times of need.