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Violence Against Women

In February 2009, our guest experts were Janice Du Mont, EdD, a research scientist in the Violence and Health Research Program at Women’s College Research Institute, and Sheila Macdonald, provincial coordinator of the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Care & Treatment Centres.

Dr. Du Mont’s research focuses on gender-based violence and women’s health, and especially on medical and legal responses to sexual assault. She holds a new investigator award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Gender and Health, and has served as an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) on issues involving sexual assault and sexual violence.

She recently completed a review of the use and impact of medical and legal evidence in sexual assault cases around the world for WHO. Her current projects include co-leading one study on client evaluations of hospital-based sexual assault and domestic violence services, and another – with Sheila Macdonald – on the use of drugs in sexual assaults.

Sheila Macdonald is a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) and clinical researcher with 18 years’ experience working with not only victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, but also with health professionals, police, crown attorneys and community members.

She has been instrumental in the development of the role of sexual assault nurse examiners in Ontario, as well as in the HIV post-exposure prophylaxis (HIV-PEP) program for sexual assault survivors. She is currently active in the HIV-PEP Knowledge to Action project, which will implement this program throughout Ontario.

Here are Janice and Sheila’s answers your questions on Violence Against Women:

Q: I strongly suspect that a friend of mine is being abused by her boyfriend. We get together once a week to go to an exercise class and on several occasions she seems to have had bruises on her upper body. How can I raise the subject with her in a supportive way? What if I am wrong?

A: It's best to raise the issue when you are alone with her in a quiet setting and you have the time to listen. If she does disclose that she is being abused, be supportive and attentive. Think about anything else that might be different with her (e.g. changes in behaviour, emotions and/or social interactions). Although we can get bruises accidentally (bumping into things, falling), repeated bruising on the upper body is less typical from accidents. Let her know that you are concerned about how she got the bruises and that you are concerned for her.

If she discloses abuse, encourage her to talk to someone. There are thirty-five Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centres across Ontario. To find the nearest treatment centre visit www.satcontario.com.

In Ontario there is also a provincial 24-hour Assaulted Women’s Helpline that she can call (1-866-863-0511). She may deny that she is being hurt, but now she is aware that you are concerned for her and are supportive. Many women who are being abused are reluctant to tell anyone because of fear, shame and embarrassment. Just be there for her.

Editor’s note: Shelternet.ca offers information for abused women across Canada. Women’s Health Matters’ Health A-Z section offers a searchable database of resources to help you find out more.


Q: Can you explain the difference between domestic violence and sexual assault? I hear these phrases being used interchangeably but I don’t really know the difference.

A: Domestic violence is also referred to as ‘woman abuse’ and ‘intimate partner violence’. It is abuse that occurs within the context of an intimate relationship. The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, financial and/or spiritual.  While both men and women can be abusive to each other, women are most often the victims of domestic violence and are at higher risk of being seriously harmed and/or killed by their male partners.

Sexual assault is generally defined as any unwanted sexual act done by one person to another. The acts can include touching/fondling, kissing, vaginal/anal/oral penetration, oral sex, and exploiting a position of trust or authority to get sex. Sexual assault can happen in the context of domestic violence. A person has the right to refuse sex even from a marital or common-law partner.


Q: I am a survivor of domestic violence and I would like to be able to attend a support group. Can you recommend any in the Toronto area?

A: Because support groups are provided at different times and by different agencies you may need to search to find the best group to meet your needs. Call 211 for a list of services or call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511. In Toronto, call the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Care Centre at Women’s College Hospital at 416-323-6040. The Women’s Health Centre at St. Joseph’s Health Centre also offers support groups and their number is 416-530-6850.


Q: A friend is in a very abusive relationship but when we try to help her she sides with the abuser and refuses to charge him. He will often hurt her and then make up for it by buying her gifts and sending her flowers the next day. She did call the police one time, but when they came she refused to press charges. What can we do to help her? She's been with this man for almost eight years.

A: There are so many reasons why it is difficult for a woman to leave an abusive relationship. She may want the abuse to stop, but she still loves her partner and hopes that when he makes up with her (and promises not do it again) that it will stop. Some women also stay because of fear (he may have threatened her if she tries to leave), shame and/or embarrassment, financial concerns including where to live and how to support her children, and a lack of support. It is not uncommon to minimize the abuse by saying “It’s not so bad and he’s a good husband/father”. You need to stay in contact with her and be supportive and nonjudgmental. Encourage her to talk about her situation with a professional such as a counsellor, nurse or family doctor. Let her know that what he is doing is not okay.

Remember that if she does decide to leave, this could be a dangerous time for her, with the risk that the violence could escalate.


Q: Do you have any statistics related to the incidence of sexual assault in Ontario to post-secondary school-aged women? I know that these are very difficult numbers to collect.

A: There is limited statistical information regarding the incidence of sexual assault in Ontario post-secondary school-aged women.

According to Statistics Canada:

“Quantifying sexual assault continues to be a challenge, since the large majority (91%) of these crimes are not reported to police. According to self-reported victim data from the 2004 [General Social Survey] on Victimization, approximately 512,200 Canadians aged 15 and older were the victims of a sexual assault in the 12 months preceding the survey [excludes spousal sexual assault]. Expressed as a rate, there were 1,977 incidents of sexual assault per 100,000 population aged 15 and older reported on the 2004 GSS.”

The Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (2007) found the rate of sexual offences reported to police in Ontario was 61 per 100,000 people.


Are there any standardized ways to assess psychological abuse against women?

A: There are a number of assessment tools that may be used to measure psychological abuse (e.g. Multidimensional Measure of Emotional Abuse). The purpose, target groups, characteristics and psychometric properties of these tools are summarized on the United States’ Center for Disease Prevention and Control website.

The actual tools are also available on the same site.


Q: I have a friend whose husband is mentally and emotional abusing her and her two children. How do I tell my friend that what is happening to her and the children will have a huge impact on the children later on in life if they are not removed from that environment?

A: You need to be supportive to your friend but straightforward in voicing your concern for the well-being of her children. The children are in an unsafe and unhealthy environment. Encourage her to talk with a professional about her options and the available resources. She may need to consult a lawyer regarding finances, custody of the children and other legal issues.

Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused (including emotional abuse) has a duty to report the abuse to the local Child Protection Agency. That means you are obligated to report your concerns.

For information about the impact of abuse on children see the Public Health Agency of Canada site.


Q: Are there any factors such as a woman's age, ability, economic independence or health that have been shown to have an affect on her risk of exposure to violence or the nature of the abuse?

A: Anyone of any age, ability, socioeconomic status can be abused. However, some research suggests that there are factors that may increase a woman’s risk of intimate partner violence (IPV). For example, a 2007 Canadian study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found a relationship between experiencing IPV and a younger age, being divorced/separated or single, having children in the household, and poor self-rated physical health.

A 2002 American study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that young age, single marital status, divorced/separated marital status and annual household income less than $25,000 was related to IPV.

In her recent book, Violence Against Women: An International Perspective, author Holly Johnson devotes an entire chapter to discussing factors that could be related to violence (such as age, marital status, alcohol use, dominance and control by male partners, witnessing abuse).


Q: Has there been any Canadian research on the correlation between domestic violence and the perpetuation of abuse through the legal system? I'm a survivor of domestic violence by my ex-husband and he's continuing to use the legal system to re-victimize me almost twenty years after I fled with police protection.

A: Although a recent Canadian study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, looked at post-separation intimate partner violence outside the context of custody of children, we are not aware of any studies that have examined the legal system as a means of continuing to abuse the victim.


Q: What training, if any, is mandated for judges who have domestic violence cases before them?

A: In Ontario, judges cannot be mandated to participate in domestic violence training.


Q: When was the Battered Woman Syndrome defense first used in Canada?

A: The information available on the web is conflicting. According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (which cites several sources), Angelina Napolitano, a 28-year-old pregnant, immigrant woman who killed her abusive husband in 1911 after he tried to force her into prostitution, was ‘the first woman in Canada to use the battered woman defence on a murder charge’.

The Parliamentary Research Branch of the Government of Canada states that the Lavallee case, which was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, recognized "battered wife syndrome" as a defense to murder. Angelique Lavallee shot her common-law husband on August 30, 1986 after enduring several years of abuse at his hands.


Q: When a husband traumatizes his wife at home, does mean things all the time, does not appreciate the good things his wife does, and prefers to take pleasure elsewhere with other women - is this violence?

A: It is difficult to know exactly what you mean by ‘traumatizing’. However, there are many ways a male partner may try to control his spouse and hold the power in their relationship. It sounds like the behaviour your partner is engaging in is emotionally or psychologically abusive. Visit the Shelternet website for further information about different types of abuse.


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