What a national action plan on gender-based violence might achieve — if Canada gets it right

Click to play video: 'What is violence against women?'
What is violence against women?
WATCH: Violence against women is a broad term that encompasses the many types of abuse that women face – Nov 24, 2019

In 1995, then-secretary of state for the status of women Sheila Finestone opened a report on the federal plan for gender equality by urging action.

“Women’s issues are society’s issues,” she wrote. “When successfully resolved, both women and men will reap the benefits.”

And yet, five years after the United Nations recommended every country have a national action plan on violence against women in place, Canada is just preparing to launch its own national plan to tackle gender-based violence — a distinction that has some worrying the 2020 government is already on the wrong track.

“If you’re just lumping it all together under gender identity, I think it’s really hard to know what kind of phenomena we’re dealing with,” says Elizabeth Sheehy, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

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A well-executed national action plan would address the fact that Canada’s responses to violence against women “are largely fragmented, often inaccessible, and can work to impede rather than improve women’s safety,” according to a 2013 blueprint put together by Women’s Shelters Canada. The blueprint also differentiates between violence against women and gender-based violence, the former being one type of the latter.

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However, in 2015, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government voted down a motion from NDP MP Niki Ashton that would have created such a plan. Two years later, Justin Trudeau’s government created a federal strategy to address gender-based violence — one the UN special rapporteur on violence against women critiqued last summer as “lacking a human rights based holistic legal framework.”

Last fall, Trudeau’s re-election platform included a promise to spend $30 million on a national action plan to end gender-based violence. Advocates, including Women’s Shelters Canada, have pushed for the national action plan to be launched in the coming months. However, a spokesperson for Maryam Monsef, minister for women and gender equality, declined to offer a timeline, saying the government has “begun developing” the plan.

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At first glance, Fae Johnstone, a trans educator, organizer and contributing writer with Xtra, sees the use of the term gender-based violence rather than violence against women as a good sign.

“It’s a really positive shift,” she says, because it allows people to look at the ways in which violence intersects, like the ways in which trans women experience both sexism and transphobia.

“I have a positive response to that (language) because it allows us to get into the deep and nitty-gritty of it, wrap our heads around how powerful those systems can be and create a response that is as intricate and interconnected as those systems of violence themselves.”

The plan will be in keeping with the federal strategy, the spokesperson said, meaning it won’t be women-specific but will look at ending violence “based on gender expression, gender identity or perceived gender and protect those who are most vulnerable to it: women, girls, and LGBTQ2 individuals.”

The lack of specificity is infuriating to Sheehy, and not because she’s trying to say LGBTQ2 people don’t experience violence or that that violence isn’t similar in some ways to the violence cisgender, straight women face but because it’s complicated.

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“There are relationships among these different forms of violence: misogyny is a common theme, homophobia and lesbophobia are a common theme, racism is a common theme,” Sheehy says, “but unless you study them separately, you will not see the ways in which they are also different.”

Violence against cisgender, straight women requires one dataset and strategy, while violence against trans people requires another, she says. Once policy-makers get more specific, “then we can understand the when and how and implications of prevention strategies.”

That’s a concern Johnstone shares, especially if the plan were to homogenize the experiences of LGBTQ2 people.

“As a transfeminine person, I get harassed a lot more in public than a cisgender gay male will,” she says.

Specificity is a point the UN special rapporteur also made in her 2019 report when it came to addressing violence against Indigenous women. While Indigenous women make up just five per cent of the Canadian population, they face violence at rates three times higher than non-Indigenous women and are six times more likely to be murdered.

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In addition to a national action plan for violence against women, the special rapporteur recommended another national action plan for violence against Indigenous women. Barring that, she wrote, “elaborate it as a separate part of the recommended National Action Plan on Violence against women and domestic violence.”

Johnstone would like to see that same elaboration for people within the LGBTQ2 communities.

“A lot of the time, we use really broad language and make it as inclusive as possible without the targeted supports or analysis,” she says.

“I worry that something so broad, without the fine details and funding and deliverables connected to those communities, will still miss the point, using pretty language without delivering the change the most marginalized in our communities need and deserve.”

Ultimately, Sheehy says, clarity and specificity make for impactful policies.

In Australia, which has had a national action plan since 2010, the focus is violence against women and their children.

The country has established a National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety to fill data gaps and conduct the research needed to drive good policy, as well as Our Watch, an organization tasked with driving cultural and behavioural change to try to prevent violence.

The plan has yielded some positive results, per a government report, with more Australians saying in 2017 that they support gender equality than in 2013 and 2009. That same survey revealed that Australians are more likely to understand that violence against women isn’t just physical.

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That being said, the survey also found that fewer people understand that men — not women — are more likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence. Two in five Australians believe that gender inequality is exaggerated and that women make false sexual assault reports to punish men, and one in five Australians see domestic violence as a normal reaction to stress, according to the survey.

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“Prevention remains an emerging field in Australia, but the (national action) plan has deepened understanding of what primary prevention entails,” said Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly via email.

For a plan to be successful, Kinnersly said, it needs to be long-term and co-ordinated, with commitment from other levels of government.

“They need to address cultural change throughout society, including structural changes such as legislative change, policy infrastructure design and policy reform to complement and reinforce.”

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Also vitally important is “that they receive adequate and ongoing funding and adhere to a robust reporting, monitoring and evaluation frameworks so they can measure what broader change is being achieved,” Kinnersly said.

This is what advocates have been pushing for in Canada, says Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada.

“The services and levels of protection that women receive should not depend on their postal code, and that’s basically the situation now,” she says.

“What we’re really looking for is consistency across and within jurisdictions in terms of policies and legislation that address violence against women.”

One change that would make an impact would be to ensure that protection orders span the whole country, Martin says, since “they’re often not valid from one province to another.”

Changes are needed in criminal law, immigration law, social welfare, housing, health and more, says Sheehy, “an incredibly complicated task made more complicated in Canada by the fact that we have split jurisdictions.”

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For a national plan to work, she says, the government needs more data.

“What are the systems in place across this country that respond to these forms of violence? What results do they produce? What failures do they exhibit, or where do they fail to interact, interface with other systems?”

That’s where you start, Sheehy says.

Braeson Holland, a spokesperson for the government, says it’s “already working with our counterparts on key issues on this file, such as human trafficking.”

Work to develop a national action plan for gender-based violence will build on the 2017 federal strategy and is underway, says Holland, although he did not discuss specifics.

In response to concerns that gender-based violence is too broad for an effective strategy, Holland says: “It is important to ensure that organizations that work with Canadians that face disproportionate levels of gender-based violence — such as members of the LGBTQ2+ community — are also eligible for funding.”

When the plan does get up and running, having “clearly defined, time-bomb goals” will be important, Martin says, as will the construction of the plan.

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The blueprint made it abundantly clear that women, communities, researchers and organizations have been working to end violence against women for a long time, and an effective plan “must clearly reflect the findings of those communities, organizations and individuals.”

After all, a study looking at four decades of policy change around the world found that “violence against women is rarely raised as an issue, much less a priority, without pressure from feminists.”

“Feminist movements — as opposed to movements of women organized for other purposes — were the critical actors,” says that study, published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review.

And advancements, while good, have been slow, says Liz Throssell, a media officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. One example Throssell gave is domestic violence, which has gone from being considered a “private” issue to a public priority.

“Of course, we are not done,” she says.

“We still need 108 years to close the overall gender gap if we follow current trends.”


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