Every year, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) campaign runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, aiming to mobilize people worldwide to eliminate all forms of GBV. But GBV isn’t just a problem 16 days of the year.
GBV inflicts our society all year round. It results in immense personal and economic costs that can span an individual’s lifetime and are passed along to children and other family members exposed to violence. It ripples across health, education, employment, justice and social systems and, accordingly, stunts growth and prosperity within economies.
While the social, moral, human rights and economic arguments for eliminating GBV are unequivocally clear, actions to repair the tears in the societal fabric that enable GBV have been fraught with inadequate and piecemeal investments. This has resulted in uncoordinated and sub-optimal approaches to preventing and addressing the scourge of gendered violence.
GBV is an everyday reality or risk for all women, transgender and nonbinary people, as well as many men. In Canada, four in 10 women will have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime; if we also consider all forms of GBV, this rate spikes to one in every two women. Importantly, the risks and consequences are amplified for those who are the most marginalized – immigrant women, trans women, racialized women, Indigenous women, disabled women and others.
While a focus on the prevention of GBV must remain a top priority, ensuring an integrated and sustainable framework of support is essential for surviving and thriving. In our new report on improving access to services, we found that survivors – especially racialized and Indigenous survivors – face three persistent barriers to getting the support they need.
First, seeking support may not be seen as acceptable behaviour because of cultural acceptance of violence and internalized stigma and shame that can delay help-seeking. Further, a lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services keep necessary help out of reach. Second, health, psycho-social and legal services may not be affordable due to the cost of travel and childcare, lack of health insurance, or lack of financial autonomy. Third, many services are not designed to meet the diverse needs of survivors who may be unaware of what is available or are too far away to gain assistance.
A one-size-fits-all model of support risks making racially and ethnically diverse survivors “invisible” at a time of their greatest need.
Thus, a one-size-fits-all model of support risks making racially and ethnically diverse survivors “invisible” at a time of their greatest need.
Yet, with the right support, survivors can experience improved health and well-being, improved self-confidence, reduced psychological distress, increased social connectedness, increased motivation to help others facing violence, and be empowered to regain control and autonomy in their lives.
So, how should these barriers be addressed?
The first solution, of course, is investment. Community programs and services are notoriously underfunded. They especially struggle to provide comprehensive, safe and culturally competent services to support diverse survivors because they lack the funding needed to train staff, hire interpreters and develop targeted programming. Seeing this funding as an investment and not an expense helps focus our attention on the long-term benefits for individuals, communities and economies.
The second solution is to plug policy holes that contribute to vulnerabilities. For example: immigration policies can increase women’s risk of GBV since they may depend on their abusers to retain legal status in Canada. Current legal structures and processes can be vectors for amplifying abuse as perpetrators use the existing systems to continue to exercise control over women. Economic abuse is facilitated by a lack of legal structures to protect the most marginalized women. Labour laws often allow the workplace to be an ongoing enabler of GBV because of insufficient protections and leave arrangements for those experiencing violence. And ineligibility for health insurance can limit access to essential health care services.
The third solution is for employers to combat GBV within their organizations and to support employees experiencing it at work or at home. Businesses with complex supply chains can do a better job of tackling conditions within their suppliers that might contribute to violence. Further, ensuring days off for moving, court appearances and medical appointments can mean the difference between being able to keep a job or not. Training line managers can help support those experiencing GBV and reduce its impacts on productivity as well as safety at work. Making it easier to change an address or move to a new company location would allow women to get out of harm’s way more easily.
The fourth is to urgently address the lack of data on the traumatic impacts and consequences – that can be acute, long term and intergenerational – for individuals, families, the economy and our society. We cannot tackle what is not measured. Data that includes race, immigration status, Indigeneity, disability and other exacerbators of harm and that is linked to other population-level data on health, education, legal and social outcomes will support ongoing monitoring and accountability. A research and evaluation agenda, co-developed with diverse individuals who have experienced GBV, and supported by these data, will allow us to adapt and scale effective interventions to benefit all survivors.
While doing a better job at supporting GBV survivors is crucially important, we also dare to imagine a world in which these services are not needed, where we have invested in the conditions that promote gender equality and prevent GBV from happening. Until that time, we need to keep a sustained focus 365 days a year on improving access to GBV services for all women, especially those who are most marginalized.