After working many years in the violence against women sector, Stephanie Hill made a significant career change. She went from supporting survivors of gender-based violence to working with the abusers themselves.
“At first, I balked at the idea [of working with abusers]…But as I thought about it and about that idea of responsibility and accountability and the way that accountability and empowerment are so intertwined, [I realized that] we can’t really be empowered until we have accountability,” she said.
It’s the relationship between accountability and empowerment that is key for Hill. However, she still ensures that the safety of the person being abused is prioritized.
“None of the consideration we give to men precludes women’s safety. But I think we’ve stopped short of holding men accountable and asking them to hold each other accountable,” Hill said.
The important part is what holding abusers accountable actually looks like. Historically, if abusers are held accountable at all, it’s often through punitive measures—charges, ostracism, blacklisting, etc. History shows how ineffective punishment is—abusers will abuse for many reasons. One reason is that we haven’t addressed the root causes of the behaviour; we haven’t invited the abuser to self-examine and to heal.
That healing is important, not only for the abuser, but for the people around them, too. This is especially important considering how many people often still have love for their abuser. So, what safety looks like is different for each individual, and sometimes, simply exiting the relationship isn’t the answer.
“We’ve known for so long that [some] women go back to those relationships and a lot of times [when] they do go back, they go without support,” Hill said.
They lack support because family and friends of a woman in an abusive relationship often just want her to leave, and if she chooses to return, that’s on her. This approach doesn’t honour a person’s feelings or right to choose and can feel more like punishment than support. It can also alienate the person being abused, cutting them off from their support systems and putting them in even greater danger.
Instead of vilifying the abuser and blaming the abused person for jumping back into the abusive relationship, Hill proposes supporting all parties.
“What if they went back with support? What if she was supported and he was supported?” Hill said. “What we forget is that she loves him deeply. And that there is no person in the world who is all good and all bad.”
Violence, especially gender-based violence, is intrinsically linked to patriarchy. And as much as patriarchy benefits men, it harms themtoo.
“We strip [men] of their humanity and their feelings and then ask, ‘why are they so violent?’,” Hill said. “If we’re not looking at patriarchy, at systems, if we’re not looking at what are men experiencing right now, what are the kids experiencing, if we’re not looking at land, if we’re not looking at all of those pieces, then we’re not seeing the full picture because all of those things are very intertwined.”
For many Indigenous communities, women are held as leaders, people that will rise up and return the community to where they should be, Hill said.
This leading back is important. Homophobia, classism, racism, patriarchy and misogyny all came here with the colonizers and they have wreaked havoc here as they have across the globe in countries that have been colonized. Leading back is a return to Indigenous understandings of community and each person’s responsibility within their communities.
Women’s responsibility of leading us back comes with empowerment.
“I think that’s where we get mixed up sometimes… we focus so much on rights, but we forget about responsibilities,” Hill said.
“Like, water is a woman’s responsibility; healing is a woman’s responsibility, and we need to start coming back to that—what is my role in [the] community and what are my responsibilities?” she said.
The program Hill works in is court-mandated, following charges laid. But healing can and should happen before the harm is done, she argues. If we practised looking at the full picture of existing as a part of the broader community, then we could build stronger, more self-aware, more confident humans who don’t harm each other.
Hill’s whole picture approach to ending gender-based violence is about finding healing through community and also teaching people from a young age about consent, bodily autonomy and self acceptance, building that foundation that will produce compassionate and empathetic people who don’t do harm, or, when they do, know how to be accountable and hold each other accountable. It’s a tall order, but Hill is optimistic.
“I believe in prophecy…I believe it’s our time—our time as women, as Indigenous people, that we’re going to rise up and things are going to be different.”
This analysis was heavily heteronormative. If you work in the realm of GBV and specifically within the LGBTQ2S+ realm, please reach out to us and we would love to do a follow-up piece.