Women looking sad

When will we see an end to gender-based violence?

“Gender-based violence”, “Violence against women”, “Femicide”, “Homicide”, “Intimate partner violence”, “Domestic violence”, “Protection orders”. Like proverbial Easter eggs, these are some of the keywords we searched for in Budget 2024, but all were absent.

In December 2023, the Province released Safe and Supported: British Columbia’s Gender-Based Violence Action Plan. We were looking forward to combing Budget 2024 to see how the Action Plan would be incorporated. Regrettably, Budget 2024 doesn’t even mention safety for women and gender-diverse people, let alone provide clear and coordinated investment toward achieving it. This oversight demonstrates that safety and support for survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) is still not a policy priority, despite a years-long process to develop an overarching framework. To leave violence, survivors need accessible housing, legal aid, child care and social supports, not as a patchwork of services, but rather as an integrated and sustainable whole. We represent three separate organizations that support women fleeing violence. We have long maintained that budgets are where promises meet action. This year, we see disappointingly little convergence.  

Housing saves lives 

GBV happens across socioeconomic strata, but leaving can be hindered by social pressure, financial circumstances, and other factors. Many GBV survivors face this situation: Do they stay and risk the escalating violence, or leave with their dependent children to face a daunting, if not impossible housing market and possibly lose custody of their children? Violence also often includes economic control, withholding information and documentation, emotional manipulation, and isolation. This creates circumstances in which making a “choice” to stay or go is illusory and perpetuates stereotypes about GBV and survivors themselves. Accessible housing is the essential first step for safety. At YWCA Metro Vancouver, we operate three second-stage housing communities for women fleeing violence that are at capacity and the waitlist for the rest of our affordable housing consistently hovers at around 1,000 people.  Increased funding for second-stage housing and more investment in permanent affordable housing is required. There has been some action. In 2018, the province committed $734 million to create the Women’s Transition Housing and Supports Fund to build 1,500 new units of transition houses, safe homes and second-stage and long-term housing, bringing the total to 3,000 units. This investment is significant but insufficient. To put this into perspective, B.C. Society of Transition Houses reports sheltering approximately 18,000 women and children every year. In BC, after women leave a transition house only 4% move to affordable housing, 21% find housing mostly beyond their means and thus remain precariously housed, and 75% remain temporarily sheltered or return home to their abusive partner. The latest budget does not address this reality, nor does it include any additional money for the Homelessness Prevention Program, which serves women who have experienced violence or are at risk of violence. It bears repeating: Survivors can’t leave when there is nowhere to go. 

No justice without access 

If a survivor does leave and pursue or respond to legal recourse, they are often left to self-represent in court, navigate complex criminal or civil justice systems, and potentially defend themselves against defamation and other civil claims. It is no wonder that many survivors simply give up on the legal system. Access to justice contains barriers not just for survivors of sexual violence but for those seeking legal aid when facing the family law system. Change has proven to be intensely difficult to gain. In 2017, the Centre for Family Equity (CFE – previously the Single Mothers Alliance BC), represented by West Coast LEAF and a team of pro bono lawyers, challenged the adequacy of BC’s family law legal aid regime. The Province and Legal Aid BC settlement resulted in the biggest increase in funding to family law legal aid since devastating cuts were made over two decades ago. This investment will fund a vital resource – a specialized family law legal aid clinic for people experiencing family violence. It will also increase eligibility thresholds and service hours, both long overdue. Still, the Province needs to do much more to ensure that the most vulnerable aren’t left behind through the justice system. We remain one of the few provinces that don’t provide legal aid services for people seeking spousal or child support. 

Survivors at the centre  

From 2018 to 2022, more than 850 women and girls were murdered in Canada, mainly at the hands of men, equaling one femicide every two days. A 14% spike in femicide occurred during the pandemic when women had even fewer options to leave or access support. Indigenous and racialized women and girls, gender-diverse and 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals continually face heightened rates of violent victimization. To address gaps in support for women and gender-diverse people experiencing GBV, we need a gendered lens applied to the provincial budget, and a coordinated effort between budgets, action plans, and the 231 Calls to Justice from Reclaiming Power and Place, the final report from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry. Here, at the meeting point of unattainable housing, rising costs of living, barriers to justice, and the lack of focused action, we will continue to see women forced back into danger, and more women dying.