(Martha and Henry are the two people that Alberta Premier Ralph Klein talks about when he wishes to discuss issues that affect “ordinary Albertans.” Martha hasn’t always been satisfied with Klein’s interpretations of his government’s policies as they apply to her so she has taken matters into her own hands and is prepared to challenge the Premier and his government and the myths around women’s equality in Alberta.)
Martha followed the UN conference on the Advancement of Women called Beijing +10 that was held earlier this month. This UN conference reviewed the progress of the Beijing conference of 1995 and the promises made for women’s equality.
It got Martha thinking about how her own province has been doing on equality for women and particularly on the issue of violence against women. Well, Martha found out more than she bargained for when she went looking for some simple answers to how much her government spends on women’s shelters. The Auditor General noted that in 2003-2004 the Ministry of Children’s Services spent $17 Million on “Prevention of Family Violence.” Martha assumed that this is where funding for shelters falls, but this was not made clear. (Auditor General report (see page 88)).
Interestingly, that amount of money is quite similar to the amount pledged by Alberta Lottery fund for “Racing Industry Renewal Initiative.” This effort to “re-brand” horse racing got $17,900,000 in the 2001-2002 fiscal year. (see page 91 of the Gaming Annual Report).
There seems to be a little “re-branding” going on in the Government of Alberta as well. The government has re-branded women’s issues and violence against women into concern for children. There is no Ministry for the Status of Women, as there is in most provinces. If you dig, you can find “women’s issues” under Alberta Community Development but donâe(TM)t get too excited; “women’s issues” stop at the Person’s Day Scholarships.
Martha went digging deeper and found the Finding Solutions Together report from the Alberta Roundtable on Family Violence and Bullying (held in May 2004). The word “women” is all but eradicated from the entire Family Violence report. In fact, the word “women” appears only four times in that 28-page report. Here are all four:
- A Canadian Institute for Health Information Report released in September 2003, showed that Alberta has a higher proportion of cases involving domestic violence against women than any other province (based on 1999 statistics) (p.5)
- Family violence is not unique to a specific gender or sexual orientation, although by numbers alone, more of the victims of extreme violence and physical harm are women and children. (P.6)
- While many people might think primarily of women and children as the victims of family violence, in fact, family violence affects everyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation, culture, abilities and disabilities, income and age. (p. 8)
- The lack of financial support can be one of the key reasons why women stay in or return to abusive situations. (p. 20)
These four references to “women” are overshadowed by the numerous references to families and children, youth and elderly people who are abused. While Martha is concerned about each of these groups she finds it strange that the issue of their gender has been obscured. For, as we know, it is girl children, female youth, and female elderly who are largely the victims of domestic assault. Why is gender obscured as a basis for analysis in the Government of Alberta document?
Is domestic violence really a women’s issue?
Here is what the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers Responsible for the Status of Women said in their 2002 Report entitled “Assessing Violence Against Women: A Statistical Profile” (Available, ironically, on the Alberta Community Development Website).
- “Why Focus on Violence Against Women? Violence against anyone is unacceptable. Violence experienced by women, however, particularly intimate partner violence and sexual assault, represents a unique aspect of the wider social problem of violence, and requires specific attention and solutions. Individual experiences of violence against women must be assessed against the backdrop of historical, social, political, cultural and economic inequality of women.”
And violence against women is not just different against the backdrop of historical, social, political, cultural and economic inequality. It is also quantitatively different. Statistics Canada reported in 2002 that:
- Female victims are more likely than their male counterparts to suffer some kind of physical injury as a result of spousal violence. Of all the victims of spousal violence in the five years prior to the 1999 General Social Survey, female victims aged 15 years and over were three times more likely than male victims to report experiencing a physical injury (40 per cent versus 13 per cent), five times more likely to require medical attention as a result of a violent incident (15 per cent versus three per cent) and to have been hospitalized as a result of the violence (11 per cent versus two per cent)….In many cases of spousal violence reported in the five years prior to the 1999 General Social Survey, the violence or the threat of violence was so severe that almost four female victims in ten (38 per cent) feared for their lives, while the rate for male victims was less than one in ten (7 per cent).
But most importantly the same Statistics Canada report stated:
- Of the almost 34,000 victims of spousal violence reported in 2000, women accounted for the majority of victims (85 per cent), a total of 28,633 victims.
Though men are sometimes victims of domestic assaults, 80 per cent of the charges against women are later dropped. Some jurisdictions have identified the phenomena of “dual charging” (when both partners are charged with assault) and have begun to look into better training of police officers to be able to distinguish “assault” injuries from “self-defense” injuries. In her paper on this subject, Dr. Edna Erez, states:
- When women reciprocate with violence, they commonly act in self-defense, after all previous attempts to stop the battering have failedâe¦preliminary results suggest that the overwhelming majority of female offenders in domestic violence cases acted in self-defense, or retaliated against previous assault or abuse.
So what happens when a government stops recognizing women as victims of domestic assault and just sees “Children and Families” as the victims? When we overlook the gender of more than 85 per cent of the victims of assault then we overlook many important needs. In Alberta, it has meant that the government has offered woefully poor resources to women’s shelters, transition homes for women, and financial resources available to women leaving abusive relationships.
Though the government has stated that it will provide “provincial leadership” (Finding Solutions Together) this pledge has not translated into financial commitment. Financial commitment is what is needed. When interviewed for this backgrounder, Kristine Cassie, CEO of YWCA in Lethbridge said: “This government owes safety and dignity to these women and to the staff of shelters.” She said the key to ensuring women’s safety and dignity is full funding.
The Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters Position Papers state clearly what the problem is:
- Funding uncertainties and limitations are the most prevalent issue facing women’s shelters in the Province of Alberta.
- All workers in this sector deserve to receive market value for their work and not be forced to subsidize essential services by working for low wages.
Interestingly, MLA salaries are indexed, every April 1, to the Average Weekly Earnings, according to Statistics Canada. Donâe(TM)t shelter workers deserve the same? Martha thinks so.
As for transitional housing, the ACWS states that:
- Alberta falls short in its provision of safe, affordable housing for women leaving abusive relationshipsâe¦ Alberta has a shortfall of 600 to 1000 (transitional) beds.
The Government of Alberta needs to commit to financial leadership in the funding of shelters, transitional housing, and financial supports for women leaving abusive relationships. It is owed to the women who are victims of spousal assault and to the women who work in the shelters and subsidize the government by working for low wages with unsafe staffing ratios.