Reduce Abuse: The Change Begins
Extract from: Violence Against Women All Pervading edited by Ajit Jain published by Elspeth Heyworth Center for Women
It was a one-day symposium held on February 25, 2013, at the 31 Division of the Toronto Police Service. The auditorium was packed. The horrendous tragedy of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi on December 16, 2012, made headlines in the international media. She was gang raped in a moving bus by six men, including a minor. Four of them have received capital punishment, a verdict that their attorneys have appealed to the higher court. One of the men committed suicide in his jail cell.
The Elspeth Hayworth Center for Women (EHCW), sponsor of the symposium, is a non-profit organization that provides counseling to abused and battered women. They come from all strata of society, rich and poor, and from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Many of the clients are South Asian Canadians.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Mohit Bhandari, Trauma Surgeon, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He treats women "with signs of abuse: broken limbs, bruises and scars all over their bodies." He says, "Domestic violence is the most common cause of non-fatal injuries to women. Over four of ten women (in Canada) are likely to have experienced one or more forms of violence." Bhandari has led a study of 282 injured women attending two trauma centers – Hamilton Health Sciences, Hamilton General Hospital and St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
Sunder Singh, Executive Director of EHCW, introduced the subject of the abuse of women. Speakers included Preeti Saran, India’s Consul General in Toronto who’s now India’s ambassador to Vietnam. She defended her country with regards to rape cases, admitting that they occur but that this is not confined to India – it happens in many countries.
After keynote presentations, there was a lively interaction between the audience and the keynote speakers. This portion provides a glimpse of remarks made by the audience.
Vinod Sharma (board member of EHCW): In regard to violence against women, it is important to discuss the relationship between medical practitioners and the police. Under the Child Welfare Act, if a child is abused, it’s the responsibility of the person who learns about the abuse to report to the police immediately. The medical community should, I hope, be doing likewise.
Ragini Sharma (expert in child welfare): The medical community has an obligation to report to the police when a woman with broken bones comes to the hospital. If there is the merest suspicion of domestic violence, doctors have to report the matter to the police.
I believe there is a $1,000 fine if doctors don’t report the matter. If there is a child present with an abused woman, the child can often get caught in the violence. I have actually attended babies with broken bones, the result of domestic violence.
Sonali Shah (audience member): My husband has broken my arm twice, and my child has also gone through this experience once. I was also harassed by my mother-in law.
In India, the mother-in-law doesn’t do things directly. She provokes and instigates her son. I discussed these things with my counselors, with the cops. They said they could not do anything because the mother-in-law doesn’t do it directly.
But the fact is mother-in-laws are part of it. They invariably create problems between husband and wife.
My husband has abused me in front of my child. My husband would push me; beat me whenever my child was in my arms. Now I cannot carry my own son in my arms. But the family on my husband’s side says if I tell the judge that I can’t carry my son in my arms and that husband and wife are having problems, I may lose custody of my child or the judge may award joint custody. I don’t want my child to grow up in that situation.
John Valerio (Domestic Violence Unit, Toronto Police Service): Our policy is very clear in regards to domestic violence. If the threshold is met and a criminal offence has occurred, we will charge the offender. If we have someone that states that an assault did not occur, but the evidence indicates that an offence has occurred, once again, if the threshold is met, the officer will charge the offender.
There are a number of new initiatives taking place in Toronto to assist victims of domestic violence. One such initiative is called the Integrated Domestic Violence Court. It combines family court with criminal court and, therefore, one judge presides over both matters.
An audience member made some disclosures with regard to a third party getting involved in her personal domestic situation. It was explained by the detective that if a third party has committed a criminal offence, including intimidation or issuing threats, that person may also be charged once all the evidence is reviewed.
Ishnan Kaur (Ontario Ministry of Education): Every new person immigrating to Canada should undergo some sort of education to understand what’s right in Canada and what’s not. I would suggest that people who migrate to Canada as adults should be given cultural training. That way, the mother-in-law would learn what is acceptable here and what is not acceptable. What’s acceptable back home in India and elsewhere is not acceptable here. Until someone tells them they will never learn.
Secondly education is the great equalizer. Everybody needs to push their children to get as much education as possible. That’s so crucial for our daughters and our sisters, because they have to understand that this is a different world. Without that, these new immigrants will not learn that things can change. This change has to start from the top. It has to start from the bottom. We can make that change happen. We have also to understand the role that religion plays in our everyday lives. A large number of women feel they are letting their community down, letting their religion down and letting their families down. I believe our religious institutions should take a strong stand on the issue of violence against women. That would make a significant difference in society.
When we go to the gurdwara, you may encounter some member of the congregation who is celebrating the birth of a boy. They should talk about the birth of a child and not the birth of a boy. The congregation should be aware of what’s really happening amidst them. They need to provide support for women; they need to provide support for children; they need to provide support for the youth, which is really floundering these days.
Aruj Butt (audience member): Some people say there are cultural biases amongst medical practitioners while dealing with victims of domestic violence. I work with the South Asians and the Muslim communities. I see there are definite cultural biases.
I am 32. When I was just 13, I told my mother that she needed to leave my father. She left him now, when I am 32. So she struggled for 19 years to save her marriage. She’s still being abused as what happened to her still has psychological ramifications. And my mother still agrees with my father’s code without him being there.
(In an interview, Butt explained her father’s code that had one basic rule and that being he was right and they were wrong. "Anything that happened against his wishes, even a haircut, would make him angry. As far as my mother was concerned, he was the superior partner, he was educated. She was not. He was cultured and intelligent. She was not. His family was better than her family. For 30 years, she was not allowed to meet with her family. I didn’t even know until I was 27 and in Canada how many brothers and sisters my mother had.
"Throughout the marriage, the specter of divorce hung over her head and to please him my mother killed her desires and personality. She used to be an independent minded person with a sense of adventure and a zest for life. Because of this marriage, she became engulfed in fear, fear of reprisals from my father if she displeased him in any way. Even now she cooks and cleans the house to perfection as though my brothers have taken my father’s place and she needs to please them with her housework just as she used to try and please my father. This is despite the fact they have tried repeatedly to stop her from stressing out over housework. She thinks her sole purpose is to sacrifice herself for her family by burying her needs and desires just as she used to with my father. She considers herself an illiterate woman who doesn’t know how to function properly in a cultured society. She would deny the truth about him to my face because she fears somehow he will learn that she thinks ill of him and he will return to abuse her. Fear ruled her life when my father was around and now fear rules her life in a different way. He’s not physically present in her life but he is present in her mind.")
It’s the trauma that we are talking about. In my work, I deal with mental health issues as well. The trauma, which is the physical issue, is tied to the mental issue, unless that goes unmeasured within the community. One of the biggest problems that we face is the fact that families will not disclose if they have someone in the family that has a substance abuse problem. Typically when such people, with substance abuse, come to our organization or go to other organizations, they don’t get effective treatment and end up almost near death.
The pharmaceutical companies spend millions of dollars developing drugs, but they don’t help us to help people with substance abuse. So, it is a great opportunity to get together and speak and discuss such issues. It takes one person to make a change, to make a difference, not necessarily an entire group, and someone knows of the situation or someone is in a situation where he/she can make a difference. That empowers other people because it unites people; and such discussions result in creating social awareness and consciousness that things won’t change easily.
There was recently a discussion on CBC TV about the larger significance of six female premiers in Canada. They were being asked questions as to ‘How are you going to date now?’ ‘How are you going to continue your personal life?’ What does their personal life have to do with governing a province? I think we have to speak out against that.
I am a proud Muslim. I am educated about my rights, about my religion and about Canada and how the two interact. I go to women in my community, using the Quran as a basis for their rights. They ask me whether the law of the land is greater than the Quran. That’s sadly their way of defending the abuse.
I reach out to my friends, women of my age who are educated or married. When I start talking to them about sex, sexuality, abuse by their husbands, etc., they just shut down and don’t talk. These are not religious topics. Religion is wonderful, God is wonderful and I am going to pray to Him. It has nothing to do with your rights. I explain to these Muslim women that there are two forms of rights: God’s rights and human rights. God forgives if you mess up with His rights but He won’t forgive you if you mess up with human rights.
The community doesn’t feel comfortable if a Muslim woman is wearing a skirt, irrespective of her profession. The skirt is like the end of the world. It doesn’t matter whether this woman is a doctor or she’s actually helping the community. It’s such a deep-rooted problem in society. We are in denial. So much is happening in the Muslim community, in the South Asian community but it is shocking and saddening that we don’t admit it, we don’t talk about it.
Tanya (audience member): I was on the table of empowering women who are victims of domestic violence and promoting institutions, programs and distributing handouts in that respect. However, it doesn’t matter how much information you have. It’s not lack of marketing or awareness, but it is the woman who has to open her eyes. Here’s my story: Six months ago, I left my husband because of abuse and took my baby. We had an 11-month-old baby then, so it came as a surprise to many people. When we had our child, everybody thought ours was a perfect marriage.
I felt the same way. But I was so blind and one day I called the Domestic Violence Hotline. They guided me to Cross Cultural Catholic Services. They helped me in making my safety plan to leave my abusive relationship, leave the house. My counselor was afraid as I had a then 5-monthold baby with me. I was subjected to all kinds of abuse – emotional, mental, and verbal. I had threats to my life. Finally, I left the house without my husband noticing it.
My mother was also abused. Laws alone don’t stop violence. What is needed, as many have said from the floor, is taking our responsibilities. Someone gave the example of when a victim was lying in the middle of the road for 2-3 hours, people walked by and didn’t take notice of that.
We should ask ourselves in what kind of society we are living. We need to change the way we take responsibility for each other. We all belong to each other. We have to treat each other as brothers and sisters and from that, change is going to come.
Dr. Bhandari: I have no doubt cultural biases exist in the medical community. The stereotypes are absolutely ingrained in healthcare. And the second point raised from the floor is another critically important one. In healthcare, we focus not so much on what we can measure, a broken bone, as on how a broken bone heals. The women that I have interacted with have often said to me, ‘My bones heal but the psychological impact and the emotional abuse last forever.’ So we have been learning from that and trying more and more to engage and learn more about that.
We are actually starting a number of projects where we’re trying to learn. The sad part is the funding to work in this field, to help women, does not exist in any meaningful way. Drug companies will fund billions of dollars to see the next drug to make the bone heal but they won’t give you $10.00 to actually try to understand how we can improve the safety of women in our clinics and that is the challenge I think we all face.
When a patient comes to the hospital with broken bones, it triggers a series of events, including doctors having to report it to Social Services in the hospitals. Then Social Services take over the investigation. If there’s a child with the woman victim, the child may be taken away by Social Services.
It is a controversial issue for most doctors. They try to act in the best interest of the woman. We have to ensure the safety of the victim. We reassure the victim that what happened is not her fault. We discuss with her a plan for her safety. We try to find resources available to her should she want to take advantage of those resources. But it is not part of our mandate to call the police or Social Services unless the victim so desires.
John Valerio: I have heard a lot of discussion with regards to what is perceived by some that we as police are not doing. I want to address what, in fact, we are doing in response to domestic violence. I have been with the Toronto Police for 25 years. I can give you some background from where we started 25 years ago, in response to domestic violence, to where we are now. There have been some monumental changes. For example, 25 years ago, if there was a stalking situation and the police were called to investigate it, the criminal code then had a section called Watch and the police had to actually find the person committing the offense.
The criminal code has been changed to include the offence of criminal harassment which allows police to lay charges on reasonable grounds rather than ‘finds committing’. I want to share some details of some of the positive changes that are coming in response to domestic violence. From a provincial standpoint, there is something called the Domestic Violence Risk management report. This provincial response is for every police service and will be required to complete the DVRM to assist in determining risk assessment. The provincial government recognizes that such a risk assessment is required to help safeguard victims.
In Toronto, the resources and response to domestic violence is perceived by some as under marketed. We, as a service, are actively working on a community engagement and communication strategy to assist in getting this information out to the community.
We have more agencies here in Toronto than probably most places in the world to assist those impacted by domestic violence. We need to make sure that people know about them and how to access resources. For example, we are piloting a program out of Toronto West Courts to standardize the Written and Revocable Consent process for victims of domestic violence. Victims can get written and revocable consent conditions imposed that empower them to speak to the offender if they wish to do so or to revoke the consent if deemed appropriate.
There has also recently been the implementation of the Scarborough Family Justice Initiative in 41 Division. The SFJ1 deals with victims and children who find themselves in domestic situations. Social welfare and other agencies are involved in the program. We now also have interview rooms at 41 Division that are deemed victim ‘friendly’ to conduct interviews.
So, there are lots of initiatives that we have taken and we are taking on this issue of domestic violence. But we haven’t marketed such initiatives well and so many people don’t know what is going on.
One example of how the community and the Toronto Police Service are building effective partnerships is the creation of what we call centers of excellence or hubs. One such hub is Focus Etobicoke, a project where government and community based agencies, prosecution services, and police provide a unified response to particular family violence cases – helping the victims and managing the offender. This program is being watched carefully by the community and care providers to see if it achieves its promised outcomes of better service and reduced incidents of crime and community harm.
Sunder Singh: As Dr. Bhandari says, we can heal the bones but emotional and mental wounds remain. My message to women who have faced violence is that the best healer is to help others and prevent the violence for other people and it will heal you. All parents, all women take the responsibility of bringing up children properly and directing them to the right path. Put the faith aside. Make your children realize that we are all human beings. We are all connected and to live in this world, you have to give love and do not teach them ideas about this and that. We are all in this world together. Once children begin to realize this, you will find that violence will start to decline.
I hope you are taking lot of information back from this symposium. I hope we will now start to make changes. Women out there: please make the change. It’s a slow process. It will take an entire generation. But we can make the change. We can do that together.