(Published in the Hill Times, Dec. 7 2022)
Gender-based violence is so deeply entrenched in society that it can be hard to imagine what could be possible in a world without it. Despite violence against women and gender-diverse people gaining in visibility, it continues to be looked upon as a regrettable, yet unavoidable social phenomenon rather than as a public health emergency that is killing one woman every other day across Canada. In British Columbia, 23 women have died in 2022.
Our shelves are lined with roadmaps, reports, and action plans to address gender-based violence. For decades, survivors and front-line workers have offered recommendations to support victims and redress harm. Still, governments continue to churn out lofty frameworks rather than take concrete actions. The recently released National Action Plan to End Gender Based-Violence likewise has positive aims but is predictably short on detail.
The plan includes good ideas, yes, but they aren’t new and they don’t add up to concrete action that will turn the very real threats women and gender-diverse people face into a reality where they are safe and able to live with dignity and well-being regardless of where they live, what they look like, who they love, or how they make a living. Far from a cohesive action plan, it is more like a menu of bland offerings, from which provinces and territories may pick and choose. There is little action and not much plan.
Soon, the British Columbia government will release its own action plan, along with the other provinces and territories, in bilateral agreements with the federal government. With this plan, we have the power to decide that a future free from gender-based violence is more than a thought experiment. We have the power to bring into being a world where all of us are safe and respected. But to do this, we must be bold and concise in our approach.
Reform legal aid
While there have been modest funding increases to legal aid in recent years, there are still critical gaps in service, especially for women fleeing violence. The income threshold for legal aid is so low that many don’t qualify, leaving them without representation, often with the custody of their children at stake. Legal aid investments must be drastically scaled up and sustained. Where family violence is taking place, legal proceedings can exacerbate violence and put survivors at greater risk. A specialized court for survivors of family violence would support people leaving violent relationships, and parenting exchange and supervision centres would help keep them safe from their abusers.
Invest in front-line service providers
Survivors need support to navigate systems and find pathways for justice and healing. This work is more difficult, more complicated and more dangerous than ever before, and it falls largely onto a feminized workforce that is experiencing high levels of burnout, with many quitting the field for good. Front-line organizations need sustained, core funding to retain their current staff, attract a larger workforce, pay workers adequately, and keep them safe.
Ensure economic security
Even with the best laid plans, progress will stall unless measures are in place to ensure that women and gender-diverse people have economic security. Within come assistance and disability rates woefully inadequate to meet basic needs, especially in the face of rising inflation and skyrocketing rents, rates need substantial increases indexed to inflation. It was encouraging to see a $300 increase in income and disability assistance rates during COVID, and disheartening to see it rolled back to $175, landing recipients nowhere near a livable income.
Women can’t leave violence if they have nowhere to go, and the need for housing remains critical. Housing must be safe, accessible, and serve the range of entry points from first- and second-stage transition to long-term options.
Make ending gender-based violence a policy priority
In British Columbia Premier David Eby’s priorities for the new cabinet, there is a glaring omission around commitments to end gender-based violence. It is an afterthought at best, and entirely absent from many ministerial mandate letters. Without urgency and an all-of-government approach, it is hard to expect much action no matter how lofty a framework can be pieced together.
The pandemic has increased isolation and made it harder to leave violent relationships, while inflation and the rising cost of living keep survivors bound to their abusers. Without urgent, tangible commitments attached to resources and concrete timeframes, we can be certain of a status quo that results in many more lives—and futures—lost to gender-based violence.
Now is the time to take action—our lives depend on it.
Photo by Hakan Erenler