Seen and Heard: SPPG’s Gender & Public Policy Workshop Tackles Gender-Based Violence

Margaret Campbell

The discussion on gender and policy continued last week at the School of Public Policy and Governance with the third workshop in the Gender & Public Policy series, a student-led initiative that has explored issues relating to women’s leadership, pay equity, and gender analysis in policy making over the past year. Titled “Gender-Based Violence: Policy Responses and Prevention,” last Thursday’s workshop featured a panel of speakers including Todd Minerson (Executive Director of the White Ribbon Campaign), Krittika Ghosh (Senior Coordinator, Violence Against Women, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants) and Dr. Ramona Alaggia (Factor-Inwetash Chair in Children’s Mental Health, University of Toronto).

In 2011, police data found that 1,207 out of every 100,000 women aged 15 and older were victims of a violent crime, a number 5% higher than the rate of violence against men. Actually quantifying gender-based violence, however, is challenging, as police reports of violence against women only represent a fraction of incidents. As Minerson explained in his presentation, roughly 80% of sexual assaults against women go unreported.

Statistic Canada’s 1993 Violence Against Women Survey, although out of date, provides a more complete picture of the situation, with half of Canadian women reporting at least one incident of sexual or physical violence since the age of 16. As Ghosh explained during the Workshop, the lack of frequent, provincial data collection is problematic because it means policy makers are unable to measure the effect of preventative policies.

Gender-based violence is a complex issue, and it needs a complex solution integrating prevention, service delivery, community outreach, and legislation. Although Canada performs better than many countries around the world when addressing gender-based violence, there is room for improvement, including adopting a national strategy similar to Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.

“When we think about policy interventions they are mostly organized around the last two areas of the spectrum of prevention—changing organizational practices and influencing policy and legislation,” said Minerson. Alaggia also stressed that in attempting to address gender-based violence through policy interventions, it is important for policy makers to acknowledge and counter gender biases built into patriarchal organizations and legislation which can re-victimize survivors.

A particularly troubling policy in Canada is the conditional permanent residence period for sponsored spouses introduced in October 2012. According to Ghosh, this legislation is problematic because sponsored spouses risk delaying their permanent residence status if there is any kind of ongoing investigation. This means survivors of domestic abuse are unlikely to report it until they have achieved their permanent residency, putting them and their children at increased risk of serious injury or fatality.

Ghosh argues that newcomer women who have survived violence should have the opportunity to self-petition for residency similar to the protection afforded to immigrant women in the United States under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). According to Ghosh, the VAWA gives immigrant women the protection to apply for permanent residency without their partner’s knowledge as long as they can provide proof of abuse through letters from social workers or their close contacts.

Another troubling gender-biased policy that was addressed in the workshop is the Children Aid Society’s practice of opening all files in the name of the mother, regardless of the type of abuse reported. In a 2007 study of 1,000 randomly sampled files from five large children’s aid societies across Ontario, Alaggia found that 86% of adult victims in the cases were women. In only 30% of domestic violence cases was the children’s aid society actually able to contact the perpetrator for any kind of follow-up, said Alaggia. By opening the investigation in the mother’s name, the survivor of violence is systematically re-victimized by subjecting them to intense scrutiny.

In a similar vein, mandatory charge and no-drop policies for domestic abuse, although rooted in increasing perpetrator accountability, systemically take control away from victims of gender-based violence and recreate the dynamic of abuse.

In developing policies and legislation targeting gender-based violence it is important to balance increasing perpetrator accountability with increasing survivor empowerment. It is also critical that policy makers stay on top of emerging trends and issues in gender-based violence, such as online harassment and cyber stalking.

“I think in Canada we think we are doing better than we actually are,” said Minerson, “We have a lot of work to do. It’s not a knowledge challenge, we know what to do. There are best practices and templates and research that’s out there. But it’s a resource and political will challenge.”

Margaret Campbell is a Master’s of Public Policy candidate for 2015. She graduated from Carleton University with a Bachelor of Journalism, Combined Honours, Journalism and Law in June 2013. Margaret’s academic interests include criminal law reform, income inequality, gender issues and education policy.

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