A woman being hurt by her partner can be named in many ways. In the 1970s and 80s it was often called “family violence” or “domestic violence” or “spousal violence”. These terms can be dangerous in that they may hide the fact that most of this violence is male violence directed against women.
Women can be and sometimes are abusive, and they hurt their male and female partners (see the section on “Women Abusers”). But the vast majority of abuse in intimate relationships involves women being hurt by men.
The term “violence against women” is helpful because it connects the violence women experience in their homes with the violence they experience in other places. Violence against women comes from patriarchal attitudes and structures that pervade our whole society.
Many people think of violence as an aggressive or physically violent act. The root of the word violence is “to violate”. You can be violated in physical, sexual, psychological, economic and spiritual ways.
What Abuse Looks Like
Statistics about Intimate Partner Violence
Why Can’t She Leave?
Family and Community Dynamics
Racism and Ableism
Newcomers to Canada
Age and Rural Location
Children Who Witness Violence
Myths and Facts
What Abuse Looks Like
Physical Abuse looks like:
- your partner pushes, shoves or shakes you
- they slap, hit or beat you with objects or weapons
- they can twist your arm or hold you down
- they throw things at you
- they scratch or bite or spit on you
- they can tie you up or lock you in
- they can burn you
- they can shoot you or stab you
- they kick or choke you, or pull your hair
- they urinate or defecate on you
- they threaten to do any of these violent acts
- they say they will kill you
- they lock you out of your own home
- they threaten you by reckless driving
- they can push you out of a car, or run you over
- you can be denied access to medication, or overmedicate you
- if you have a disability, they can deny you access to mobility aids
What Sexual Abuse Looks Like:
- when you are treated as a sex object
- you are threatened by violence to do sexual acts
- you are coerced to do sexual acts “If you loved me you would do this”
- you are raped; vaginally, anally, orally
- weapons are used to make you submit to sexual acts
- you are called sexually-derogatory names
- you are forced to view pornography
- you are forced to commit sexual acts in front of others, including your children
- you are forced to commit sexual acts with others against your will
- your partner threatens to divorce you, or have you deported if you don’t submit
What Economic Abuse Looks Like:
- your partner prevents you from accessing or using your own money
- your money is taken away from you and put in someone else’s account
- you are kept in the dark about financial decisions that affect you
- you are lied to about your finances
- you are forced to keep account of every penny you spend, without knowing how your partner spends money
- you are forced to sign over assets, or give away money you don’t want to give away
- you are forced to lend money against your will
- you are forced to take on debt against your will
- your estranged partner refuses to pay alimony or child support
- your partner tries to remove you from their will or gives away assets so you will be left destitute when they die
What Spiritual Abuse Looks Like:
- scripture is used to control your behavior
- your partner justifies their violent actions using scripture
- your beliefs or practices are ridiculed or mocked
- you are prevented from practicing your beliefs, and participating in cultural events
- they bring in religious leaders to make you do what they want
- manipulating you with your religious beliefs “As a Christian you must forgive me”
- being told your sexual orientation is “against God’s will”
What Emotional Violence Looks Like:
- your feelings and ideas are continually ignored by your partner
- you are constantly criticized, either privately or in public
- you are called names
- your partner threatens to hurt you to force you to do something
- they threaten to harm themselves (eg. suicide) to make you do something
- they threaten to hurt someone you love
- they threaten to leave the relationship unless you do something
- they manipulate or lie to you
- they hurt or threaten to hurt your pets as a way of hurting you
- valuable items are broken or given away to hurt you
- you are isolated from those you love
- you are given the “silent treatment”
- your mail is opened without your consent
- they post derogatory things or explicit pictures of you on the internet
- your partner continually makes derogatory jokes at your expense
- they imitate you in a negative way as a way to mock you
- your partner forces you to do degrading things (eg. lick the plates clean)
- they do things that terrorize you (drive too fast, play with weapons in front of you)
- you are deprived of sleep
Statistics about Intimate Partner Violence
Recent government studies from Statistics Canada report that rates of abuse of women did not change from 1999 to 2009. They report that 98% of intimate partner violence is committed by men. The incidence of spousal violence is believed to be much higher than the statistics suggest, since many women do not report violence. Women fear retaliation, or they minimize the importance or severity of the abuse to preserve the relationship or the family setting for their children.
The report says, “While violence against women crosses all socio-demographic boundaries, data suggest that some groups of women and girls are more at risk. The likelihood of being violently victimized can differ based on socio-demographic factors, lifestyle behaviours and community characteristics, as well as other life events. For example, previous experiences of emotional and financial abuse can be specific risk factors for escalating spousal violence.”
In terms of Aboriginal women the report says: “Aboriginal women continue to have higher rates of police-reported and self-reported spousal and non-spousal violence than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. According to the 2009 General Social Survey (GSS), the rate of self-reported violent victimization against Aboriginal women in the provinces was about 2.5 times higher than the rate for nonAboriginal women.”
Cultural beliefs can also impact how women and families respond to violence. South Asian immigrants have cultural standards around what it means to be a “good wife”. In some cases this can lead to them being submissive and self-sacrificing to the point of not reporting even extreme cases of violence and abuse.
Christian women are not immune from the violence which women experience in our society. Nancy Nason-Clark, a sociologist at the University of New Brunswick, suggests that pastors are not listening if women come forward with reports of spousal violence. She suggests that church leaders need more training.
Studies have shown that women in Christian groups are just as likely to experience violence as the general population. Some Christian groups emphasize the integrity of the family at all costs. Christian families are not more prone to violence, but this theology may restrict the options women have when they do experience violence.
Why Can’t She Leave?
One of the most frequently asked questions of women who live in violent relationships is, “Why don’t you just leave?”
Both survivors and men who have offended may minimize the violence. They don’t name it for what it is, they think it was not “that bad.” In order for a woman to say “No!” to violence, she must understand what is happening as violence. Denial is still a common characteristic of abused women. Many women do not name behaviour as abusive because it would shatter their desperate efforts to have a normal life.
When overwhelming evidence crumbles denial, then other difficult emotions may emerge. They may resist telling people about it because they do not want to be stereotyped, or labelled a “battered woman”. They can feel overwhelmed at the difficult choices that they now face. Even when violence is named, there are many factors that make it difficult for women to leave abusive relationships.
Fear is a primary factor in keeping a woman within an abusive relationship. She is afraid that her partner will become more violent. He may hurt her or her children. He may kill himself, telling her that she is responsible. If she attempts to tell someone about her pain, or to leave, she knows that this will likely escalate the tension and the violence.
It is a fact that the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she makes a move to leave the relationship. Leaving a relationship is often the time when violence escalates. Life can get more difficult when they leave because their former partner may stalk and harass them.
Some women can go to shelters where they will be protected from violence, supported and helped to start a new life. However some people live in rural areas and cannot easily access a shelter, or it will mean taking their children out of school. Other women are reluctant to go to shelters because of language barriers, or they fear their cultural background may not be respected.
A major reason that women do not leave is because they suffer from low self-esteem because they have been treated badly for so long. They feel powerless and trapped. They have been conditioned to not trust their own judgment. They don’t feel they have the willpower to leave. These feelings can be so overwhelming that it seems easier to tolerate the abuse.
Some women blame themselves for the abuse, suggesting that it is their own fault because “I always make him angry.” They have been taught by the person who abuses them that violent behaviour is normal. Or they turn their anger inward and engage in self-harm, like cutting.
A significant factor that leads women to tolerate abuse is the economic reality of separation. Women simply don’t have the money to start a new household, and find first and last month’s rent. They worry they won’t be able to provide for their families on their own. Many men do not provide child or spousal support.
Women-led single-parent families in Canada earn significantly less than male-led single parent families. Women’s earning power has increased in recent years, but it is still substantially lower than men’s. In situations of divorce, the standard of living of men on the whole increases, while the standard of living for women on the whole decreases. Women fear leaving their partners because it will mean a substantial decrease in the standard of living, both for themselves and their children.
Some women experience economic abuse in a relationship, and they don’t have access to money, or a bank account. They can’t get money in an emergency, and they have no credit rating, so they can’t borrow money. They are financially bound to the person who is abusing them. Leaving a partner means financial challenges must be faced alone. There is a very real fear of not being able to provide the necessities of life.
Who is most affected by poverty? Older women, aboriginal women and women with physical or mental challenges, women of colour, and immigrant women are all over-represented in terms of women living in poverty in Canada today. People in poverty suffer under many burdens that make leaving a violent relationship more difficult.
Family and Community Dynamics
A woman may not want to leave a violent man because she cares for her partner. She has hopes that the relationship can be salvaged if she just hangs in there a bit longer. She hopes for a change of heart, or circumstance. A woman leaving a violent relationship wants to spare her partner the embarrassment of being seen as an abuser. She feels sorry for him. She doesn’t want to disclose the abuse because it would hurt his career. She doesn’t want him to be arrested, put in jail, or get a criminal record.
A woman who is coming to terms with abusive behaviour often defends her partner as a “good person who really loves me.” She makes excuses for him, blaming the violence on stress in the man’s workplace, unemployment, or a traumatic childhood. Many Christian women believe in the sanctity of the marriage vows they made to their partner. They feel that naming abuse and leaving the relationship violates those vows. Christian women face the added factor that they are called to forgive people who hurt them, and to turn the other cheek.
Women who are in abusive relationships may stay for the sake of the children. They don’t want to break up the family. They don’t want their children to suffer the trauma of a move, leaving their community and friends. They don’t want their children to suffer the stigma of living in a shelter or transitional housing, or the stigma of receiving social assistance. Women try to protect their children by hiding signs of abuse; however, most children in families where a partner is abused are aware of the violence.
Our society idealizes two-parent families. Some women believe that the abuse they experience is outweighed by the care that their partner gives the children. Many women stay because they believe their partner is “a lousy partner, but a good parent, and that’s what’s important.” Women want their children to have two parents, and they feel guilty taking their children away. Alternatively, a woman may fear that her partner will get custody of the children, and that she will be denied access.
First Nations and Inuit people have historically experienced a disproportionate degree of apprehension of children by child welfare agencies. These children were subsequently fostered and adopted into predominantly white homes. This history may lead some aboriginal women to tolerate abuse rather than expose it, for fear that their children will be taken away.
Fear of her community’s response may lead a woman to stay in an abusive relationship. Leaving a relationship means that she will likely have to share this excruciating experience with others. It is too humiliating to say out loud what she has been called, what has been done to her or what she has been forced to do. She does not know if people will treat her story with respect and confidentiality. The survivor worries that people will doubt her story particularly if her partner is a well-respected member of the community. She fears that people will think she is crazy, or judge her by saying she is responsible for the abuse.
A woman who has been sexually assaulted by a boyfriend may have difficulty sharing with her friends and family that the man whom she trusted abused her in this way. For women who are Christians, there can be an added burden. There is a mistaken assumption in some churches that a good Christian man would not take advantage of his partner. This can lead women to avoid warning signs about boundaries being crossed, and even to deny that what happened was sexual assault.
A woman may fear that if she goes to the police with a complaint, she will not be in control over what happens to her life. She fears that her story will be ignored or discounted. She may fear a court case, or having to testify publicly against her ex-partner. While police departments have tried to improve their treatment of woman abuse, there is a long history of women not being believed, and their stories being ignored. This fear is compounded in the cases of women of colour, aboriginal women, or immigrant groups, who already face discrimination by the legal system.
Racism and Ableism
The biases in our society are reflected in our institutions. A woman of colour fears that she will be re-victimized by the system. A woman of colour may not be treated seriously by people to whom she turns for help. Stereotypes about a cultural group can lead to abuse being ignored or written off even if the woman reports it to the police. A woman may be afraid that her partner will be beaten by the police, and not receive fair treatment in the criminal justice system.
Women from certain cultural backgrounds can face specific pressures from their community because of fears of racism in society. The formation of a cultural community is a result of internal and external factors. External factors can include racism towards that group, which results in the group wanting to appear unified and strong. Charging someone with abuse can be interpreted as dragging down the community. There is pressure to “save face” for the cultural group. In some cultural groups, the authority of males in the family is so strong that naming her partner as abusive results in the woman being ostracized from her community.
For First Nations women, the band council may be male-dominated, and this may complicate her leaving an abusive situation. Property rights are held communally by the band council, and a woman may have to apply to live apart from the person who is abusing her. The patriarchal structure of some band policies and procedures assigns property rights to the head of the family. This results in Aboriginal women being forced out of the family home and community into the city, where they encounter a multitude of systemic barriers
If a First Nations woman does press charges within an abusive relationship, racism within the court system can result in lenient sentencing. Since many aboriginal men have been hurt through the residential school system, they may not be held fully responsible for their own actions. This can result in the person who has offended returning to the community in a short period of time.
Statistics show that women who are differently abled suffer from violence more frequently than other women. Women with physical challenges are more vulnerable to abuse for many reasons. because they may not be able to call for help or get away from the violence. A woman with speech difficulties fears she will not be able to find someone who can understand her story. If a woman is developmentally delayed, her story may not be believed. Authorities often find the caregiver more credible than the person who receives care. Women with profound physical disabilities are often considered to be lacking in intelligence, and are treated as children. Women with mental illness can be committed into institutions by their partners. Their story about violence may be doubted because of a history of psychosis.
Women with physical or mental challenges are often particularly dependent on their families and partners for money, practical help, and emotional support. Women with disabilities must often depend on many different people to assist them in their everyday lives, and can be abused by them. Caregivers can include personal care attendants, social workers, homemakers, interpreters. Women who depend on this community with its network of support may find it impossible to leave.
Women with physical or mental challenges may not have been taught ways to be assertive or self-protective. In contrast to the street-proofing many children receive, children with disabilities may have been taught to be compliant and to trust authority figures. Women with disabilities are often treated as non-sexual beings, and may not have received the sexual education needed to distinguish between abusive and non-abusive behaviour. The discrimination in our society against people who have challenges may have left them with low self-esteem that can contribute to staying in an abusive relationship. If they do leave a relationship, service providers may not be able to meet their needs.
Women who are differently abled may find it very difficult to create a safety plan to escape abuse. They may have difficulty contacting a shelter, or the shelter may not have a facility that can accommodate them. Their partner may have control over their medications. Their speech challenges may make it difficult to make themselves understood to the police.
Newcomers to Canada
Newcomers to Canada face many burdens as they try to leave abusive relationships. Women who are immigrants and refugees to Canada are often dependent on their partners. Their status in the country can be at stake, they may fear losing their sponsorship or refugee status if they leave an abusive relationship. Many women are involved in joint sponsorship of their own and their spouse’s extended family members. This translates into intense pressure to keep the family together.
The threat of deportation can hang over a woman’s head, as can the fear that if she reports, she will suffer social disgrace, and the breakdown of a sponsorship. It can be hard to challenge violence from a vulnerable socio-economic location.
Economically, newcomers are often dependent on their own cultural community. Even if sponsorship is not an issue, leaving an abusive relationship may challenge cultural norms and lead to exclusion from the community. Some women who are newcomers are unable to get social assistance if they leave the marriage. Women who are in the country illegally do not have the same resources that other women have; they cannot call the authorities without risking deportation. The same can be true of migrant workers, or those on a student or visitor’s visa.
Some newcomers have come from countries where police were abusive, or they were tortured by government authorities. Naming abuse to men in authority can be a terrifying experience. Lack of fluency in a new language adds another layer of difficulty for women seeking help. Abusive spouses often serve as interpreters in healthcare settings, making it difficult for a woman to share her experience of abuse. An inability to speak English or French may mean that a newcomer woman may not be aware of custody laws, and may not understand her legal rights regarding her children.
Newcomers to Canada often face the dual burden of sexism and racism. They may struggle with speaking an official language of Canada, and thus may not have easy access to service from the government. Refugee or immigrant women can be isolated within their cultural group because of this language limitation and thus community pressure becomes more pronounced.
Age and Rural Location
Two factors that affect women’s ability to leave abusive relationships are their age, and whether they live in a rural location.
Young women may be caught in abusive relationships with their boyfriends. A young woman may believe that her boyfriend’s possessiveness and jealousy is flattering, taking it to mean that he really loves her. People may ignore warning signs or not take the young woman’s fears for her safety seriously because she is young. Young people may have nowhere to go; they have not had the life experience of working, or learning how to cope in a new community.
Older women who are abused by their partners may have difficulty naming abuse after decades of enduring it. When they disclose the abuse, people may not believe them, or ask, “Why did you stay so long if you were being abused?” An older woman may have the mistaken belief that a woman’s shelter is a place for young women with children to go, so she may not feel she has the right to access these services. An older woman may have lived all her life in a community, and safety may involve leaving that community; this can be too challenging for some.
Seniors are a population that is vulnerable to abuse of many kinds. Part of this vulnerability has to do with society’s reluctance to listen to older people. Their complaints can be dismissed as confusion or dementia. Older women face being economically coerced — they are more susceptible to stealing, scams or con games, or overcharging for services — or they can be neglected through the withholding of medication or nutrition. They can be physically abused through overmedication, use of restraints or rough handling. There can be physical or emotional abuse, such as infantilizing, threats, or isolation.
The way older women are viewed in society may make it difficult for them to speak of sexual abuse because of misconceptions about sexual assault. Stereotypes of older women as asexual and unattractive are combined with the myth that sexual assault is about sexual desire. These beliefs may lead an older woman to keep her story of abuse to herself.
The geographical location of the woman may affect her willingness to tell others about abusive behaviour. Some women are deliberately moved to remote and rural areas in order to isolate them and cut them off from support networks. A woman in a rural area cannot expect a quick response to an emergency call for help. Most shelters are in urban centres, and she likely would have to leave her community to find safety.
Poor rural women may not have a car and would have to rely on neighbours for transportation. Rural communities can be close-knit, making confidentiality and privacy a challenge. The easy accessibility of guns in rural areas is also a factor in the violence that some women experience. Guns can increase the lethal nature of danger that rural women face.
Rural values and the importance of the community holding together may influence a woman to stay in an abusive relationship. She may face loss of reputation or public humiliation because of stereotypes and disbelief of her story. Exposing abuse may mean having to leave the rural community. Farm women risk dissolving a business partnership that they relied on for financial security, as well as leaving a career in farming that they will not be able to replicate without access to land.
Children Who Witness Violence
As children grow and mature, they learn about the world. Is the world a safe or an unsafe place to live? Is life predictable or chaotic? Are my caregivers able to protect me? Children who live in homes where they witness violence learn about the world in an atmosphere filled with tension and uncertainty. They are more likely to experience violence themselves than children who grow up in non-violent homes. They can get caught in actual physical violence, or become tangled in the web of violence that affects their whole family.
Children can have different reactions to violence, depending on their personality, their developmental stage and the type of environment or supports they have. Children who witness violence, like adults, can develop post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some children internalize the violence by withdrawing. Other children become more aggressive and difficult to handle.
Some children who grow up in violent homes feel responsible for the violence that they witness. They may feel that it is their job to stop the violence, and feel shame if they are unable to protect their mother. Other children can become perfectionists, trying to do everything right, thinking that if they are “good enough” the violence will stop. This type of perfectionism can become self-destructive.
As children mature into young adults, the patterns learned growing up can surface in their own choice of partners. They may have learned that it is normal to be treated disrespectfully or in violent ways.
Children can be helped to cope with violence they have witnessed. They should receive professional counselling to cope with the trauma. Often, the most powerful lesson they can learn is seeing their mother or caregiver break free from the web of abuse, and make positive changes in her life. They can learn about the patterns in their own lives that are unhealthy, and make choices that are life-giving.
Women are not better people than men, or less prone to violence. Women can be abusers too. Women can and do physically assault their partners. It can be difficult for men who are abused by their female partners to seek help, because social norms see men as strong, and women as weak. Society has sanctioned and normalized male violence against women for so long, that when a woman is violent against her partner, that violence can be minimized or trivialized when it is reported.
Crimes where women are abused by their female partners are under-reported for a number of reasons. Women may not have the language to define the abuse that is happening to them. Awareness about violence in our society is growing, but there is still a perception that violence only happens in heterosexual relationships. Lesbian relationships are often characterized as mutual, and devoid of the hierarchy that can pervade male/female relationships. However, abuse can happen whenever there is an inequality of power. Inequality can happen when someone is economically or emotionally dependent upon another person.
Recognition of violence against women in our society has prompted changes in the law, in victim’s services, and in police and judicial reforms. Most of these reforms are designed for women in heterosexual relationships. A lesbian woman who seeks to report violence faces discrimination in the institutions that should be there to help her. A woman fears that no one will believe her because she is a lesbian. Law enforcement officers can view violence between lesbian women as mutual or consensual abuse. They may not know who to believe, and the survivor of violence may be arrested.
Women who are abused by other women fear physical, sexual, emotional, economic and spiritual violence. Issues around sexual orientation can be used in that violence; a partner may threaten to expose her orientation to the community if she seeks help from the battering. A partner can threaten to “out” a woman to her family, her work-place, her landlord or her religious community.
Myths and Facts
Myth: Woman abuse occurs more often among certain groups of people.
Fact: Woman abuse occurs in all ethnic, racial, economic, religious and age groups. However, violence in more affluent groups is often hidden because these women use shelters, legal clinics and other social services less often.
Myth: Women remain in abusive relationships because they want to stay.
Fact: A woman may feel she cannot leave an abusive relationship for many reasons. For example:
- she hopes the relationship will get better
- she doesn’t want to break up the family
- her partner’s abuse isolates her from friends and family
- she is afraid her family and community will blame her for the abuse or encourage her to stay
- she feels ashamed and blames herself for the abuse
- she fears for her own and her children’s safety
- she depends upon her partner’s income
- she has lost self-esteem because of her partner’s abuse
- she has nowhere else to go
- her partner has threatened to harm her if she leaves
Myth: Alcohol causes men to assault their partners.
Fact: Men who batter often use alcohol as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for abusive behavior. Many abusers claim that they are “unconscious” when they are drunk or high, and that they have no control over their actions. However, a truly “unconscious” person would not be able to perform behaviour that they have not performed in the past, and they will not be able to enact new or unlearned behaviour unless they are conscious of their actions. The real cause of wife assault is the batterer’s desire for power and control over his partner.
Myth: Men who assault their partners are mentally ill.
Fact: The psychological characteristics of batterers are extremely diverse. No personality traits or clinical factors set abusive men apart from the general population. Most men who assault their partners are not violent outside the home. They do not hit their bosses or colleagues. When abusive men hit their partners, they often aim the blows at parts of the body where bruises don’t show. If abused men were truly mentally ill, they could not selectively limit and control their violence.
Myth: Women often provoke assaults and deserve what they get.
Fact: Violence is a tool that men use to control and overpower women. Abusive men know their wives or girlfriends are frightened of them and use violence as a method of control. When a man is inclined to be violent, there is no behaviour or response a woman can use to prevent or stop his abuse. She can yell at him, she can hit back, she can run away or even withdraw, and he will still be violent.
Myth: Women are not abusive—only men are.
Fact: Anyone can choose to be abusive or not.
Myth: Violence is caused by drugs, alcohol, stress, childhood abuse.
Fact: While these factors can be important, they do not excuse abuse.
Myth: Lesbians are always equal in relationships. It is not abuse, it is a relationship struggle.
Fact: Two women in a relationship do not automatically guarantee equality. Relationship struggles are never equal if abuse is involved.