Violence against women is still hiding in plain sight

Once again, Canada observes the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

Cooper Street in Ottawa.

This is Cooper Street in downtown Ottawa. If you’d walked down that street at about 10 p.m. on Nov. 18, as I did, you’d have seen a man yelling at a woman. You’d also have seen the same man ordering a woman out of a beaten-up pick-up truck and, when she wouldn’t budge, grabbing and pulling at her with some force. You’d also have seen the man drive away with some recklessness, the woman inside, yelling. Almost no one else noticed. It’s the same thing that happens thousands of times in Ottawa every single year. It’s common, simply put, to witness that kind of thing.

The man didn’t slug the woman or shoot her with a gun. He might not have committed a crime, even. But when I saw what was happening, I noted his plate number and called the police. I waited a while before making that call. Passersby certainly weren’t grabbing for their phones; indeed, most didn’t seem to even notice the disturbance. So many questions arose from those few minutes: Should I have called the police? Was that a private matter? Why did so many people just walk by? Did they not care, or just not notice? Perhaps most importantly, what happened to that man and that woman? Is she okay? Is he okay? Are they still together?

It’s impossible to answer most of those questions definitively. The police, and just about anybody who talks about violence against women, would suggest dialling 9-1-1 is the proper course of action. As for the rest of those questions, well, it’s anybody’s guess. Police did tell me more about that couple: Later on that night, they pulled the guy over on the highway and nailed him for slapping licence plates on an unregistered vehicle. Because of my call, they asked his female companion if she felt endangered. She was “adamant”, in the cops’ words, that she did not. Of course, it’s hard to know if that’s how she really felt.

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In the aftermath of all this, I talked to two people who knew a few things about domestic violence: Isobel Granger, a staff-sergeant with the Ottawa Police Service’s partner assault unit; and Holly Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa whose research explores intimate partner violence. Conversations with both women were as overwhelming as they were illuminating.

I’d asked the police for some data that illustrate the prevalence of domestic abuse. Eventually, Granger called me and asked if I’d come in and explain the numbers she had in front of her. They didn’t tell the whole story, she said. Yesterday, we chatted for over an hour about the complexity of what the police categorize as partner abuse. It was pretty sobering. Granger plunked down a thick pile of paper that listed every investigation into partner abuse in 2011. It comprised 3,142 investigations conducted by 19 detectives in the unit—do that math,  and it’s clear just how overwhelming case loads can become for each detective. Each morning, as the sun rises, there tend to be a handful of men in the Elgin Street station’s cell blocks who were hauled in the night before after allegedly assaulting their partners.

That’s in Ottawa, the census metropolitan area that, according to Statistics Canada, had the lowest rate of intimate partner violence in 2010 (259 per 100,000 people). That year, Statistics Canada reported over 102,500 victims of intimate partner violence across Canada, or 363 victims per 100,000 people. Thunder Bay registered the highest rate (969 per 100,000), followed by Regina, Saint John, N.B., and Saskatoon. But that’s only the reported stuff. Statistics show that only a fraction of partner violence—28 percent, according to 2004’s General Social Survey—is called into police. Granger told me that when her unit appears on the evening news, a spike in calls to police tends to follow. That says a lot about how many people don’t call every other day. Granger says partner assault happens all over the city, sometimes out in the open, sometimes vocally, other times silently. She pointed to cyberstalking as a frustrating evolution of such violence. It’s no secret that the internet can be a dangerous place, and, Granger reminded me, victims of violence aren’t immune from the online world’s darker side. I left that conversation with the impression that policing violence against women is a hell of a tough gig.

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Nor is the job handed to people like Johnson, who studies such violence for a living, an easy one. She talked about a lot of things, and it’s worth writing about all of them: why many women don’t call the police when they’re abused, or refuse help if police do visit; how effective awareness campaigns might be able to reduce the amount of domestic violence; how male role models, particularly in the world of sport, can influence the people who look up to them; the problems posed by anonymity, or presumption of anonymity, that pervades the online world; the “pornification” of media, much of which is consumed by children. There’s more, too, and journalists could write about all of it every day without becoming repetitive.

Something stuck out in both conversations yesterday. When I asked them how they define success in their various encounters with partner assault, Granger and Johnson each hesitated to answer. I sensed they weren’t entirely confident in their responses. Johnson even called the struggle to combat such violence “depressing,” which was pretty raw. Presumably, success would mean a wholesale reduction in partner assault. But neither really mentioned that goal until I asked about it.

One more anecdote: I asked Johnson how helpful something like today’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women is to those who want to reduce violence against women. “Awareness campaigns make you stop and think,” she told me, adding that it’s akin to remembering veterans’ contributions on Remembrance Day. Johnson outlined a number of ways partner assault might be reduced, including aggressive ad campaigns that illustrate the lunacy of violence. She also pointed to the work of a number of organizations that support women who need help, and the achievements of the White Ribbon Campaign, an initiative led by men who work to end violence against women.

There’s one distinction I’d draw between Remembrance Day, and similar tributes, and the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Veterans mostly signed up to fight, and they were working towards an achievable, and laudable, goal. The women who were murdered at l’École Polytechnique in 1989, and all the women who are beaten and tortured every day, never signed up for their fights. They’re not fighting for the end of tyranny, nor some equally glorious end. They’re just fighting for their lives. It’s happening everywhere. And no one knows how to contain it.