Rural women experience assault at the hands of their partners at a rate almost twice that of urban women.
They’re more vulnerable, say advocates, because physical isolation, poor public transportation, a lack of support services and economic circumstances all combine to make it harder for rural women to leave an abusive relationship.
Violence doesn’t come out of nowhere. Since 2003, Ontario has had a committee reviewing every death related to domestic violence (251 in that province from 2003-12).
A study by the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee in 2012 found that in 73 per cent of cases involving a death related to domestic abuse, there was a history of domestic violence.
Peter Jaffe, who sits on that committee, puts the number even higher.
“Eighty per cent of the homicides have happened after multiple warning signs: prior history of domestic violence, separation, perpetrators clearly escalating in his behaviour, making threats.”
So there are clues, which if picked up on, could help women before things get to that point.
What’s even more frustrating, 45 per cent of cases reviewed by the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee from 2003-12 were homicide-suicides, meaning that men likely weren’t thinking of the legal consequences of their actions, and may have needed some help themselves.
So, the question is: how do you stop violence before it happens or escalates? And, if it does happen, how do you give women a way out?
Advocates say that one way to help is to address the isolation rural women face. While you might not be able to fix the physical isolation – where some women might be 20 minutes’ drive from neighbours or emergency services – you can bring some services closer to them.
“We need to have programs in other locations,” said Charlene Catchpole, chair of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses and executive director of Leeds & Grenville Interval House, a shelter in Brockville, Ont.
This might include having outreach workers available in a community to help provide advice or creating a safety plan for women who want to flee, said Catchpole.
More shelters might help too. Catchpole’s shelter, the only one available in Leeds and Grenville counties, has only 10 beds serving roughly 99,000 people. They’ve been at 135 per cent capacity for the past six months, she said.
READ MORE: Domestic violence: when the law isn’t enough
More services mean more money though, according to JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County. She thinks that the funding formula for violence-against-women services should be changed to take into account geographic factors as well as population. That way, her single location wouldn’t have to serve all 7,400 square kilometres of Renfrew County.
People in the community could also help, according to Jo-Anne Dusel, provincial co-ordinator of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan. They could be trained to recognize some of the signs of abuse, she said, and help women develop safety plans or reach out for more help.
“Maybe it’s a primary care nurse. Maybe it’s a hairdresser,” she said. School principals, teachers or councillors could be trained too, she said, all to make sure help is available to those who need it.
Educating the community is another way to address violence against women in rural communities, say advocates.
Attitudes like blaming the victim are more prevalent in rural areas, said Catchpole.
“The attitudes around domestic violence I think still exist and permeate the community at large. ‘Oh, that doesn’t happen here.’ ‘He’s a good boy, he just had a bad day.’ Those kinds of attitudes I think need to be addressed.”
She feels that school programs that teach boys about the importance of respecting women are helping to change those beliefs.
Breaking the cycle of abuse is vital, said Dusel. “Research has shown for a very long time that people who are exposed to domestic violence as children are more likely to either be a victim or a perpetrator in the future.”
If you can prevent those children of abuse from abusing themselves, you go a long way towards fixing things.”
There are also the most traditional ways of fighting abuse – the laws and the court system.
As they stand, they don’t always prevent tragedy, as the case involving three women killed near Wilno, Ont., last September shows. The accused killer had a long history of violence and was still released on probation into the community.
READ MORE: Did the law fail three murdered women?
John Yakabuski, MPP for Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, hopes that his private members’ bill, requiring prisoners to sign their probation orders and allowing electronic monitoring of their whereabouts, will help address some of the worst cases, like that one.
But it won’t solve the problem, he said.
“It’s not going to protect a woman in an unknown abusive relationship, because we don’t know about it. It is only to deal with those people who have been released from custody who are seen to be someone who could re-offend.”
Specific courts for abuse cases, like Ontario’s Domestic Violence Courts, are “really beneficial,” said Catchpole. Not only do they provide women with support as they testify, but they also have judges and attorneys specifically trained in domestic violence cases.
This means that they’re better equipped to recognize the signs and effects of domestic abuse and address it accordingly, she said, which results in greater accountability for the abuser in sentencing.
“It’s not just seen as a common assault. The whole idea of the domestic violence court is that history comes in. If this woman has lived a long time in an abusive relationship and finally after 15 years, charges are being laid, that ongoing buildup of violence and that ongoing impact of violence is taken into account in those courts,” said Catchpole.
Dusel is skeptical that changing the law will have much of an effect on women’s lives. A restraining order, she said, is just a piece of paper.
“It’s not going to stop him from kicking in the door. It’s not going to stop him from running her off the road. It’s not going to stop him from going to where she works or to the school where her kids are.”
And often, she said, men aren’t thinking about the consequences when they abuse, given how many cases are murder-suicides.
“Saying that we’re going to increase sentences for domestic violence in some ways isn’t helpful because often when it gets to that point, the men aren’t planning on sticking around for the consequences anyway.”
“We all know that when a man is thinking about murdering his partner, it’s more than likely they’re thinking about killing themselves.”
Recent tragedies, though horrible, are starting to shine a light on the problem of domestic violence, said Catchpole, and that could mean that things will change.
“Unfortunately, I think tragedy always creates a level of opportunity. And so I really do believe that as a woman who runs a shelter, there is an opportunity for us within the violence against women sector to really create good processes for women and really address violence in our communities.”
© 2016 Shaw Media