Gender-based violence is nothing new. Its persistence, however, does not mean it’s an immutable fact that it will, or should, remain a part of life forever. The United Nations acknowledges everyone’s responsibility in combating it, and Canada’s own federal government has, too, for decades in fact.
The federal government recently tasked YWCA Canada with undertaking a sweeping analysis of gender-based violence in communities across Canada. They reached out to YWCA member associations as well as equity-seeking organizations and service providers across the country. More than 70 organizations and groups participated in administering community consultations to gather input from key stakeholders and advocates to get a sense of what an effective national action plan needs to entail in order to truly eradicate gender-based violence in Canada.
The Feminist Shift is a collaborative initiative working to build capacity throughout Waterloo Region to acknowledge and reject gender-based violence and the issues that relate to it. In conjunction with YW Kitchener-Waterloo and YWCA Cambridge, The Feminist Shift participated in this analysis process by speaking with local folks from a variety of walks of life: People in leadership roles in non-profits or equity-seeking groups, some with lived experience. The people we spoke to were candid and their identities were confidential.
Four key areas emerged through these community consultations that represent what our community wants to see addressed in this national action plan: intersectionality, the continuum of gender-based violence (GBV), social infrastructure and consistent prevention work.
Intersectionality was central to our conversations on GBV. Our community is calling for responsive and flexible systems that exist within an anti-racist and anti-oppressive critical reflection. They want to see culturally rooted programming and responses to GBV that transcend the dominant western solutions approach.
Local community members want to address the need for non-binary, two-spirit and trans-targeted research and data collection to evolve our traditional opinions of who should “qualify” for GBV supports, and how to better support gender diversity in our systems and programs.
“[M]any services such as [intimate partner violence] shelters are not prepared to support trans/non-binary clients. We are often left out of the conversation and it’s not clear where we fit in service provision,” one local community member said.
But what really stood out in these conversations was the notion that we can’t move forward without looking backward. This is central to a plan for change. As one participant said:
“When considering an intersectional gendered lens we also have to consider historical systems and how they have impacted people who are differently socially located. We can’t move forward with this new gendered lens with those historical violence threads still existing.”
Continuum of Violence
In defining GBV, systems and programs have traditionally focused on interpersonal violence and have filtered those experiences into categories such as sexual assault, domestic violence and family violence. Our community is calling for a deeper understanding of the continuum of GBV from the experiences of mental and emotional abuse, to the need to focus on macroaggressions (large-scale aggression) and how GBV is experienced in a community collectively.
“I think for me, what I’ve been advocating for a very long time is a more comprehensive definition of gender-based violence. We haven’t included the gender-based violence that happens in the larger society or the community, which includes, discrimination based on sex and gender, hate crime, and hate incidents,” one participant said.
We also need to address where our current limited definition of GBV brings us in terms of barriers to support that are further perpetrated through funding models:
“I think there’s something to be said about the weird dynamics that exist between domestic or sexual assault shelters and street-involved women who are victims of domestic violence or intimate partner violence — the way that you guys are funded is weird, and it’s not coordinated. The higher-ups have to re-examine how resources are allocated because it shouldn’t matter the conditions of the violence,” a participant said.
Addressing GBV requires a strong foundation to be able to support prevention and response to violence. At a high level, we are calling for guaranteed basic income and an influx of supportive housing, easier access to basic needs items, universal, affordable child care, harm reduction and pharmacare.
On-the-ground trauma and mental health services were of central concern and recognized as a significant gap for survivors in our community.
“I need aftercare therapy, to deal with things. If it is not dealt with, it is just ongoing and it becomes an excuse and you keep doing the same circles. If you let that be your final obstacle then what. It should be immediate, one of the first things offered,” a community participant said.
Consistent Prevention Work
Conversations around prevention focused on how we work with children and youth to intervene and teach about power and control, consent, emotional literacy and healthy relationships. Our community members also discussed the need to include men and boys in this work.
“Children should be taught that they have a voice,” one participant said. “This will help them grow to be self-aware, to trust their feelings, and to be an ally — how to use their voice for change, how to stand up when they see harm etc. This early prevention work will lead to systematic change.”
Our community also called for more consistent core funding, and for a GBV prevention focus to transcend across Federally funded programs and arm’s lengths institutions.
We have been here before, and if we don’t start to look at GBV and the infrastructure gaps and dated systems that inform it, gender-based violence will never end. Policies and prevention efforts need to be nimble, flexible and intersectional. We need to root these as non-negotiable. They need to exist at the core of our values when thinking about what we expect from civil society and from our government systems.
As one participant so aptly said: “These programs should be entrenched, so a change in government at the provincial or municipal level doesn’t afford the right to remove them based on budgets or policy changes.”
Here’s hoping that’s what we get when the federal government begins rolling out its national action plan on gender-based violence.
Jennifer Gordon is the director of advocacy with the YW Kitchener-Waterloo and an organizer with The Feminist Shift, an inclusive, intersectional advocacy group for social change.
Rosalind Gunn is the director of marketing and communications at YWCA Cambridge and an organizer with The Feminist Shift.