Most victims of family violence remain quiet
Dana Lacey, Financial Post, November 28, 2009
Most women don’t tell anyone when their partner hits them the first time, or even the second or third time. Last year, more than 100,000 Canadian women and children fled their homes and spent time in shelters for abused women. But studies show that most people trapped in abusive relationships will never come forward. For that reason, family violence is often called the silent issue.
There is no “type” when it comes to victims of family violence, says Lisa Falkowsky, executive director of the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter (CWES). The issue is prevalent in Alberta, which has the country’s highest rates of abuse and addiction. Every year, CWES serves 14,000 Calgarians of all ages, neighbourhoods and socioeconomic classes.
The shelter — the first of its kind in Western Canada — was opened 35 years ago by a group of volunteers. “It wasn’t a popular issue and many people didn’t understand how many people are affected by it,” Ms. Falkowsky says.
There are plenty of reasons for the silence, Ms. Falkowsky says. “There is a lot of social stigma around family violence that makes it difficult for people to come forward. They’re often met with questions and accusations — ‘Why don’t you just leave? I know I wouldn’t put up with that’ or ‘I play ball with him, he’s a great guy.'”
Contributing to the silence is that societal and religious norms dictate that “marriage is for life no matter what,” she says. Others simply don’t know what support is out there.
But the silence is a symptom of the problem itself. “Abuse is about power and control, and most abusers are very sophisticated. They’ll isolate the victim from family and friends so they’ll have no one to turn to.” One of the shelter’s main goals is to raise awareness in the community and get those important conversations started.
Last month, the shelter got a great boost in achieving that goal. Internationally renowned speaker and leadership expert Debra Benton chose to hold her annual charitable keynote speech in Calgary to kick off the province’s Family Violence Prevention Month. Every year, Ms. Benton chooses a cause to donate to; she gets hundreds of requests from worthy organizations across North America. A tour of the CWES shelter convinced her it was the right cause.
“It just hit her that she had never told anyone that she had been abused by a partner. She never told her family or her current partner. She’d just pushed it out of her head,” says Ms. Falkowsky.
It all came flooding back — the embarrassment, the shame — and Ms. Benton made those memories part of her speech. The audience gave $2,000 to the shelter, and victims of family violence got a much-needed voice.
It was a different sort of boost from the corporate world. The shelter gets half its funding from the Alberta government and organizations such as the United Way, and fundraising delivers the other half.
The business community has stepped up to the challenge by providing volunteers and money.
BP Canada Energy Co. helps support the shelter’s Healthy Relationships program for youth facing violence or showing abusive behaviour, while Newalta Corp. makes large donations and helps the shelter organize fundraisers.
Women and children fleeing abusive households can stay in the 40-bed shelter for up to 21 days while they look for affordable housing — an increasingly difficult task as families struggle through the recession (although no one is forced to leave if they have nowhere else to go).
There’s a play therapy program available to help children overcome post-traumatic stress. The shelter also offers a range of counselling and community programs tailored to specific groups, including high school kids and seniors, and a program designed to help men overcome their abusive behaviours.