Canada’s shelters for abused women have an appalling framework, argued a group of panelists gathered on International Women’s Day (IWD) in Toronto, as they described the dysfunction behind the shelter walls. The event was called Transforming Shelters Beyond Protection and was moderated by Judy Rebick, CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University.

With over 500 shelters across Canada, 152 in Ontario alone, meant to protect women suffering from mental health issues, drug problems and especially those suffering from domestic violence, the current framework that these shelters operate within does a great disservice to these women.

The panelists explained that shelters are increasingly employing professionals with degrees in social work to protect abused women. However, professionals don’t carry any firsthand experience of the violence that is inflicted on women. Central to the revitalizing and transforming of shelters is the involvement of survivors of domestic violence as employees. The urgency in these survivors is more compelling than the education of social work professionals. What needs to happen is for current employers to be re-educated and re-trained on the issue.

“Credentials set up an artificiality about who can do what,” said Akua Benjamin, director of the School of Social Work at Ryerson University.

The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH) often provides training to shelter staff to enhance the equality of women, but ever since the five percent funding cuts to shelters and 21.6 percent cuts to social assistance and housing subsidies in 1995, resources are less available to get abused women and their children out of danger. In addition, funding for counseling in second stage housing programs was completely eliminated. Shelters reported that as a result of the new reductions, women were returning to their abusive partners.

The cuts came after women’s equality services increased significantly under the Ontario NDP government in 1990. Social program spending became increasingly criticized during an economic recession, and under the then newly elected Progressive Conservative government many women’s programs took a dive.

“Because we got so much power at one point and women of colour started to lead the movement, they shut us out,” said Rebick.

“The Women’s Movement did not isolate itself from politics. Politics marginalized us,” Rebick added.

The other flaw that speakers at the event pointed to in the shelters’ current framework is its relationship with the child welfare sector. Women’s shelters and child welfare are two systems that are not always in agreement, especially since funding for child welfare has doubled since 1995. When child exposure was included as “family violence” within the Ontario Child and Family Services Act in March 2000, women became the source of blame for children who witnessed violence.

In 2003, 34 percent of women in abusive relationships were charged by child welfare for failing to “protect their child.” The problem, panelists argued, is that the child welfare system lacks a women-centred approach to violence against women, which compromises the protection of women. According to the Statistics Canada Transition Home Survey in 2004, 88 percent of dependent children reside in shelters to escape abuse.

The current framework of these shelters means that they work more as social control agents that regulate, rather than protect and care. Women are denied entry into shelters for many reasons, most of them due to their immigration status, their mental health and if they have children. The lack of resistance to these regulations weakens the potential for shelters to protect and empower women in an anti-oppression framework.

Women often come to shelters because of abuse and because they have been ravished by poverty, racism, sexism or homophobia. With no national framework to deal with violence against women, women themselves are the only ones who can fight for an anti-oppression framework and ensure that shelters focus on equity and protection.