By Myrna Dawson
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Criminal Justice, University of Guelph
One woman or girl is killed every other day in Canada.
This is not a new fact nor does it represent a new trend. For 40 years, this fact has varied little; similarly, rates of other forms of violence against women and girls have remained persistently stable.
Violence is a product of our culture. So, too, are our responses to violence when it occurs. Therefore, systemic and cultural transformation is required.
This is a daunting task, but can be achieved with small steps. We can begin by changing the public discourse around the killing of women and girls by calling it femicide. We can identify and challenge problematic beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes that influence behaviours that lead to male violence against women and girls. We can learn how to better respond to these forms of violence when they occur.
The mass killings in Toronto this spring by accused Alek Minassian and his reported involvement in a misogynistic online movement provides a concrete and horrifyingly real example of the way misogynistic hate can kill both women and men. The last time we focused on misogynistic hate with such vigour followed the 1989 mass femicide at École Polytechnique at the Université of Montréal.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Now (some) people are listening. Only time will tell if actions will follow.
But one woman or girl has been killed every other day in this country for more than four decades. This was a fact before and after the 1989 mass femicide at École Polytechnique. It was a fact before the van killings in Toronto.
It will continue to remain a fact until we change public discourses, challenge negative attitudes, and acknowledge how inadequate our responses currently are to violence against women and girls.
We need to recognize that terrorism comes in many forms and perhaps the most dangerous terrorists are not those recognized and prioritized as such by our government.
Why does a large group of women or girls need to be killed to attract public attention? Most women and girls who are killed every other day in this country were the sole victims of their killers, which is perhaps the reason their deaths received little or sustained attention.
Our biggest national threat may not be external, but internal, resting on ideologies that are equally damaging — misogyny and male entitlement. Intimate or domestic (household, not country) terrorism is the most prevalent type of terrorism in our country, experienced primarily by women, and often their children, at the hands of male partners.
Rather than step up the threat level, however, “intimate” terrorism appears to mitigate the actions of perpetrators.
Women are also terrorized outside of their intimate relationships with men and often live with conscious or unconscious daily fears as they try to go about their everyday lives.
And we continue to believe that we are incapable of responding to this type of terrorism — if its existence is even acknowledged.
Our government works tirelessly to reduce our risk to external terrorist threats. These are deemed to be preventable. We need to stop accepting the belief promoted by some that there is nothing we can do about these other forms of everyday terrorism experienced by women and girls. They are often portrayed as seemingly random acts, but they are preventable.
Feminists and others have worked to prevent violence against women and girls for decades in this country and worldwide. They have long recognized the role of misogynistic hate as a key contributor to male violence against women and have lobbied tirelessly to have it recognized as such. Misogyny — literally, the hatred of women — can be addressed by changing our culture.
Violence against women and girls is everyday terrorism that affects more than half the Canadian population — half the world’s population.
Focus on community and society
In light of the #MeToo movement and other initiatives that have gained momentum and underscore the daily reality of the lives of girls and women, not only in Canada, but worldwide, how can we shine light on this issue of violence against women and girls?
One answer is to focus less on changing individuals and more on changing the larger community or society in which we all live. We need to look at our social and state responses and the cultural values that they reflect back to us. Cultural values that highlight these acts as individual problems rather than the result of social structures and ideas built on gender and other inequalities. Cultural values that discount some victims because of who they are and where, how and by whom they were killed.
We know that equitable access to justice for all women and girls in Canada does not exist in life or in death — particularly for Indigenous women and girls.
Our cultural values are reflected back to us in the legislations, policies and programs that our governments prioritize and support. Therefore, we need to pay attention to state responsibility and accountability because it generates, in part, the environment in which we live — our broader culture.
If initiatives are to be effective, those who are tasked with designing and implementing legislation and policy must recognize the seriousness of violence against women and girls.
If those tasked with imposing laws and policies — locally and nationally — continue to hold negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes that work to perpetuate and maintain male violence against women and girls, the most well-intentioned legislation or policy will remain just that — progress on paper, but not in reality.
This crucial focus was underscored by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences in a special event in May at the 27th Session of the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. The focus was state responsibility and accountability in ending impunity for femicide —gender-related killing of women and girls.
The event coincided with the release of the most recent volume on femicide by the Academic Council on the United Nations System, with the same focus: Femicide, State Accountability and Punishment.
Violence against women and girls is everyday terrorism that affects more than half the Canadian population — half the world’s population. The threat is real for all women. Indigenous women and girls, in particular, are under siege in Canada, and their deaths are often seemingly treated with impunity.
We need to recognize this fact immediately. According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, at least 78 more women and girls have been killed in Canada in the first six months of this year.
Myrna Dawson currently receives funding from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair program. She is a member of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario.