Myrna Dawson is no stranger to questions about focusing on violence against women when murder victims are predominantly men. As the director of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, she gets it a lot.
Her quick response? “It’s not a competition — it’s about prevention.”
Her less-quick response? Violence against women is unique, and entrenched in our society, where she and many other experts note that social structures “perpetuate and maintain gender inequalities.”
The term “femicide” isn’t meant to convey women are being killed more often than men, Dawson says.
“It’s about underscoring that when women and girls are killed, it is in ways that are very distinct from the ways in which men and boys are killed and, therefore, prevention requires an approach that recognizes those differences.”
It’s about power, says Nadine Wathen, a Western University professor and Canada research chair in mobilizing knowledge on gender-based violence.
In many respects, Canadian society still buys into traditional gender norms and the idea that “men have certain rights to this power to be able to control women, children, and other men who don’t conform,” Wathen says.
“We’re in a very heteronormative, white, male-dominated society and that works really well for a lot of men.”
Overall, more men are murdered: 485 in 2017 versus 173 women, per Statistics Canada. But tease apart the data, says Nazanin Moghadami, a feminist and registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, and you’ll see that men are mostly killed in gang-related violence or random crime, while women are killed largely by their intimate partners.
Look at the police-reported victimization rate per 100,000 people in Canada and you’ll see that 487 women experience domestic violence compared with 134 men.
Look at the media and the work researchers have been doing on violence against men and boys, says Dawson, and you’ll see stories about them that are never accompanied by, “why aren’t you focusing on women and girls?”
It’s all about the context: “The subject of violence against women makes people uncomfortable,” says Dawson, which might be because of who is perpetrating the violence.
“People continue to adhere to the notion that such relationships are private and that violence within such relationships is normal.”
A lot of work has been done to look at risk factors like who is a victim, who is a perpetrator, what age they are and how they are related. While that’s important, Dawson says we don’t look enough at the bigger picture of gender inequality — issues like the ongoing wage gap, the devaluation of women’s work, or the lack of universal daycare.
“One way to deflect attention is by suggesting that more men are killed so these contributors cannot be the problem,” she says.
Addressing violence against women and gender nonconforming people not only helps women and gender nonconforming people, Moghadami says, but men too.
“The stronger the women’s movement became, the more it actually brought equality, access and awareness for more than just women,” she says.
“When we have equality, we have inclusion for the most vulnerable, and it protects everyone. But if we only focus on the people who have power, then we always forget the people who are targeted.”
None of this is to say that individual women don’t cause harm or commit crimes, says Wathen, but the way our society is structured right now means that women “suffer more from these experiences of violence.”
Trying to neutralize the gendered aspect of this violence doesn’t help anyone, says Wathen.
One of the questions that keeps her up at night is how to better explain this to the men in her life who want equality but don’t always see their actions, including things like interrupting women frequently when they speak, through an equity lens.
“The people who are more marginalized need a bit of extra resourcing at the front end to get us to equal outcomes.”
Ultimately, Dawson says, she doesn’t think there would be such a backlash to researchers and media reports that focus on violence against women “if our society valued women and girls.”
“We would not be criticized for turning some attention to women and girls and violence against them given that research and media does also focus on men and boys,” she says.
“Those who deny this are choosing to ignore this reality for a specific purpose.”
Want to learn more about gender-based violence, like sexual harassment, the complexities of violence against trans people, the shelter crisis, and the importance of teaching your kids to say vagina rather than ‘hoo-ha’? Read the full Broken series.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or violence and needs help, here are resources you can access across Canada.