Columnists

Matthew Behrens
Terrorism against women: The war that never ends

| February 21, 2013
Photo: Cameron Adams/Flickr

In September 2005, Emory University Professor Erica Frank came to a none-too-startling conclusion: that investments in basics like disease prevention and research would save far more lives than the hundreds of billions spent in the "war on terror." Citing one example, Dr. Frank noted that in September 2002, New York State spent $1.3 million to reduce heart disease (the leading cause of death in the state) while the state budgeted $34 million for bio-terrorism preparedness (the latter an issue rooted largely in the netherworld of speculation).

Such fact-based reality checks are nuisances to politicians and corporate executives who profit from fear and the substanceless scenarios that make for memorable nightmares, as well as hefty "defence and security" contracts.

Similar "nuisances" have arisen in the U.S. gun control debate. Absent the 9/11 attacks, the number of Americans killed in what the U.S. government declares are terrorism attacks from 2001-2011 is 37. The number of American homicides committed with firearms in that same period is a staggering 130,147, with suicide via gunshot numbering even higher at 194,187. While Zero Dark Thirty and other propaganda efforts remind us that there is always the possibility that somewhere, somehow, someone is plotting something evil, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack currently stand at 1 in 73 million (whereas 1 in 50,000 Americans face death by accidental suffocation.)

Dangerous to be a woman

Statistics also reveal that during the past decade, it has been far more dangerous to be a woman in a relationship with a man than it has been to be an overseas soldier or police officer. In his book The War on Women, the late author Brian Vallée pointed out that between 2001 and 2006, 101 Canadian soldiers and police officers were killed. During that same period, over 500 Canadian women were murdered. We knew about the losses of the former group because they're marked by mass funeral processions and patriotic displays saluting hearses driving along the 401. No such events mark the regularized murder of women.

This is meant not to take away from the horror and sadness at the loss of those soldiers and police officers. Rather, it is meant to place in context the broader question: who, exactly, is being protected by these billions spent both on overseas wars and, in a lot of Canadian communities, on the occupying army also known as the police? It's certainly not those 500 women. Nor is it the 600 missing and murdered aboriginal women (since 1970) for whom a public inquiry has yet to be announced (a failure repeatedly condemned by the likes of Amnesty International and the United Nations). Nor is it the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced women and children forced to find space at one of the 550-plus women's shelters across Canada, not to mention the countless thousands who are turned away. Nor is it the uncounted population of women who have been unable to take that step of leaving after enduring years of abuse that, in many cases, constitutes home-grown torture: beatings, whippings, burnings, intentional breaking of bones. 

As Vallée noted, "These comparisons are meant solely to draw attention to the ongoing scourge that continues to take the lives and to damage the bodies and minds of thousands upon thousands of women and children living in fear of the domestic terrorists in their own homes. If our governments became aware of terrorist cells that planned to kill and maim thousands of their citizens, would they not muster the full resources of the state to go after and stop them? It is an outrage that this slaughter of women should continue in so-called progressive Western democracies, or anywhere else in the world."

Last week's One Billion Rising activities were designed to up the ante on action to end terrorism against women, though they received scant Canadian attention when compared to stories about hockey injuries. (The day was based on the United Nations estimate that one in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime). When media DID choose to cover the event, it was often focused on events in India or the Philippines, as if the problems in those countries are worse than here.

RCMP abuses aboriginal women

Women's lives were also dismissed last week by the Harper government after the release of Human Rights Watch's devastating indictment of the RCMP's mistreatment of scores of aboriginal women and girls, including reports of tasering, rape and death threats. Stephen Harper, in a tone that reads "this is tiresome," was critical that these women shared their stories anonymously, and called on the fearful women to "just do it" and report these crimes to the police (the ones allegedly committing these crimes). Notably, the head of the RCMP has admitted time and again the problems of systemic sexism within the force, and a recent RCMP complaints commission report found female Mounties feel their complaints are met by a biased internal system designed to protect the institution against any complaints.

With such a reality staring us in the face, the utter failure to implement a fully-funded action plan to end violence against women in all of its broad contexts (from devaluing women's labour, lack of affordable housing and accessible daycare, and demonization of all things feminist to promotion of the notion that men are victims of women's relative success, among many others) stands in stark contrast to the open coffers for Canada's weapons manufacturers and torture-complicit spy agencies. Their narrative of alleged and unproven threats lurking in the shadows takes priority over factual findings on violence against women (a theme that runs through other Harper initiatives such as his law and order prison expansion amidst falling crime rates). But in Lanark County, an hour from the nation's capital, the Interval House women's shelter is starved for funds as it struggles to attend to the thousands of crisis calls it receives annually. For the women and children of this rural area, represented by a Harper Conservative, the prospect of Canada spending tens of billions on jet fighters, drones and warships does not provide any sense of comfort when the real-life terrorist they fear either lives with them or is separated by a rarely respected no-contact court order.

Perhaps one reason the issue of violence against women gets thrown onto the backburner is the ever-growing use of obtuse language that fails to properly name perpetrators and targets. Terms like "spousal violence," "relationship violence," and "domestic assault," decontextualize who is doing what to whom. Perhaps one way to overcome this is to change the parameters of the language. The FBI defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." Those same dynamics of coercion and intimidation to seek power, control and domination exist in the realm of what has been called in some academic literature Intimate Terrorism, and so perhaps calling for an end to terrorism against women might make a few government ostriches pull their heads out of the sand.

But if a change in language does not provoke new policy, one has to wonder what, exactly, will speak to the Conservatives in a manner that will force them to make the safety of women a priority.

Assume, for a moment, the sick possibility that if women could show that the terrorism conducted against them could harm the economy -- Harper's top priority -- then perhaps Harper and company would pay attention, allocate some funding, do something to help end the scourge?

The "cost" of violence against women

Such studies do exist. In 2011, for example, Canadian Public Policy magazine reported an estimated $6.9 billion in public and private costs as a result of the difficulties faced by women who had left abusive relationships. Canada's Department of Justice undertook a similar study that sought to capture a snapshot of the cost of violence against women in the year 2009. The results of that study -- that at a very conservative estimate, violence against women costs the economy $7.4 billion -- were sparingly reported over the Christmas holidays, the study itself only becoming public as a result of a Canadian Press access to information request.

Among other things, the study found "Victim costs ($6 billion) accounted for the largest proportion (80.7 per cent) of the total economic impact for cost items such as medical attention, lost wages, lost education, the value of stolen/damaged property, and pain and suffering."

The report finds  "46,918 spousal violence incidents were brought to the attention of police in 2009, 81 per cent involving female victims and 19 per cent involving male victims. More victims were victimized by current spouses (71 per cent) than by former spouses (29 per cent)." The report remarks that such figures are no doubt very conservative, as the great majority of violence against women goes unreported or, when it is reported, it occurs after multiple incidents of violence. Depressingly, it also notes that "the incidence of spousal violence in Canada has not decreased over time."

This study, which appears to have been destined for a dusty bureaucratic shelf, has failed to generate much follow-up from government benches. Instead, the old patterns remain: as millions will be spent celebrating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1 in 2014, it is unlikely the government will be devoting much energy to marking the 25th anniversary of one of the worst terrorist acts on Canadian soil, the mass murder of 14 women at L'Ecole Polytechnique in 1989.

Wretched court decisions

And so the war goes on. We read of the justifiable need for Post-Traumatic Stress counselling for military veterans, but what of the far higher numbers of women suffering PTSD from the violence they experience in the intimacy of their own homes? While much education has been done, it is clear that, as organizers of One Billion Rising noted, upping the ante is crucial, as the traditional canards that seek to rationalize violence against women have not disappeared.

To cite one area where stereotypes still abound -- the courts -- we've seen in the past month the Supreme Court of Canada refusing to provide protection for niqab-wearing women who fear having to remove the veil if they testify against an assailant, the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling that a woman can be fired if her employer finds her "irresistible," and an Ottawa lawyer who, in defending a man who murdered his female friend with 53 stab wounds to her neck, face, chest and arms, blamed the victim as a "lying, manipulative, deceitful woman and welfare cheat." It is unclear if the lawyer mentioned the length of her skirt.

The rage inspired by such events is palpable in some quarters, but as Eve Ensler of One Billion Rising concludes, it's largely met with "the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, brother us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren't you standing with us? Why aren't you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of us?"

To join the global uprising to end rape culture visit: http://onebillionrising.org

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Cameron Adams/Flickr

Comments

Matthew Behrens wrote:
Perhaps one reason the issue of violence against women gets thrown onto the backburner is the ever-growing use of obtuse language that fails to properly name perpetrators and targets. Terms like "spousal violence," "relationship violence," and "domestic assault," decontextualize who is doing what to whom.

My favourite weasel word is "bullying" as a euphemism for "sexual assault", which in turn is now a standard Criminal Code euphemism for a whole range of assaults on women, from unwanted contact to indecent exposure to rape. It obscures the ugly reality with technocratic jargon.

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