Understanding domestic violence in rural communities: Elisabeth Ballermann

As part of the movement against domestic violence, we have a responsibility to ensure that governments understand the conditions faced by rural women in order to create public policy that includes concrete options for women and children fleeing violence. — Elisabeth Ballermann, NUPGE Secretary-Treasurer

Ottawa (11 July 2017) — This September, the accused killer of 3 women murdered in rural Ontario will go on trial.  On September 22, 2015, Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam were shot and killed in Renfrew County, Ontario, by a man known to all 3 of them.  The man had a history of violence, including domestic abuse, and had just been released from jail.

This tragedy is just one example of what women are subjected to in rural areas, where the rate of violence is almost twice that experienced by urban women.

A new report from the Aurora Research Institute in the Northwest Territories provides a window into how domestic abuse affects rural women. It found that "80 per cent of communities don't have access to victim services; 85 per cent don't have shelters. Those that do are often at capacity. The study also found that some women don't have access to phones."

As part of the movement against domestic violence, we have a responsibility to ensure that governments understand the conditions faced by rural women in order to create public policy that includes concrete options for women and children fleeing violence. 

Mounting barriers for rural women facing abuse 

It's not just one challenge for women living in rural communities. It's one after another after another and so on.

It is more difficult for rural women to leave an abusive relationship because they are physically isolated. 

The core public services that many of us take for granted, like public transportation, are limited or unavailable to rural women.  In many areas, austerity measures by governments have actually reduced the public services such as social services and health services that could have helped these women escape the abuse.

Many jobs in rural communities have disappeared, or are low wage, making it more likely that women do not have financial independence to leave abusive relationships.

It likely takes longer for police to respond to calls for assistance, putting women further at risk.

The rural justice system has fewer domestic abuse support workers, and for anyone who needs to go to court, the distance to court can be prohibitive. Where a judge sentences an abuser to treatment, there may be not be a program available in the community.

After leaving a relationship, it is likely that rural women will encounter her abuser. The thought of living in such close proximity to the abuser can create fear and anxiety, especially without the services women need to rebuild their lives. Alternatively, she faces the prospect of moving from her community, which adds both social and financial costs. 

The lack of accessible education, employment and child care can be further obstacles to gaining independence for women.

NUPGE works on domestic violence issues in many ways

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) has a long history of fighting to end violence against women and girls. Working with our Advisory Committee on Women’s Issues, we have worked hard to focus attention on the need for shelters and transition houses that are adequately funded, and sufficient in number, to ensure that anyone escaping domestic abuse has access to a safe place for themselves and their children. 

We have worked in collaboration with the Canadian Labour Congress on the Domestic Violence at Work project that focuses on the impact domestic violence has on workers and their workplaces. Workplaces can be dangerous for survivors of abuse when the abuser knows their location.

We have supported organizations such as the Coalition for Gun Control that advocate for stronger gun controls in Canada.  Particularly in rural Canada, a gun in the house places women facing domestic abuse at much greater risk. We remain committed to working with our allies to reduce violence against women and children in our communities, in the workplace and at home. 

Too many solutions, not enough action

We are not at a loss for ways to help women and children fleeing violent relationships. Women's organizations have been advocating for many of these ideas for decades:

  • More funding for shelters and transition housing
  • More public social services in rural communities
  • Improving cellular services 
  • Creating and investing in a rural economic strategy to provide good jobs
  • Reintroducing the gun registry
  • Creating more Domestic Violence Courts with judges and attorneys specifically trained in domestic violence
  • Addressing gender-based violence against women in school curriculum 
  • Providing educational opportunities for communities to recognize signs of domestic abuse.

New federal announcement on gender-based violence strategy

On June 20, the federal government announced its gender-based violence strategy. As reported by the CBC, "The bulk of the $101M over 5 years will go to creating a centre of excellence within the Status of Women Canada to study violence against women and try to solve the problem." The remaining money will be used by various governmental departments to provide better support for survivors and helping the justice system become more responsive to the needs of those who experience sexual assault or other forms of domestic violence. 

We applaud and support all initiatives that help to enhance funding and services to address gender-based violence.

But the way funding is being distributed — on a per capita funding model — creates an automatic disadvantage to women in northern communities. The 3 territories, which have a total population of about 120,000, received just under $500,000 over 2 years. This funding model reinforces what we already know:  women living in rural areas experiencing domestic abuse are not getting what they need. 

We urge the government to access the substantial body of knowledge that already exists to ensure the bulk of the funding will provide tangible services and solutions, especially to address the specific obstacles for rural women. The tragedy in Renfrew underscores the need. 

In solidarity, 

Elisabeth Ballermann
NUPGE Secretary-Treasurer
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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 370,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. ~ NUPGE