Laura Munn-Rivard & Sandra Elgersma
Library of Parliament
In Canada and around the world, violence against women and girls remains a serious challenge. It impedes women’s full and equal participation in public life; it causes short- and long-term damage to women’s mental and physical health; and it hurts families and society as a whole.
One of the priority areas of the federal agency Status of Women Canada is “ending violence against women and girls”. This focus is reflected in the mandate letter for the Minister of Status of Women, which calls for developing and implementing “a comprehensive federal gender violence strategy and action plan, aligned with existing provincial strategies”.
Violence against women: Overview
In Canada, according to police-reported data, women face a slightly higher rate of violent victimization than men: 1,207 female victims for every 100,000 women compared with 1,151 male victims for every 100,000 men.
Furthermore, the violence faced by women – when compared to men – is of a different scope and severity:
- Women are more likely to experience violence at the hands of men they know, such as intimate partners, family members or acquaintances.
- Women are at greater risk of certain forms of violence, including intimate partner violence, sexual assault and criminal harassment (stalking).
- Women are more likely to experience intimate partner violence of a severe nature, which includes being sexually assaulted and beaten, living through chronic incidents of violence, and being threatened with a gun or knife.
Recent statistics on violence against women in Canada reveal that:
- the rate of intimate partner homicides in Canada is four times greater for women than for men;
- on a “snapshot” date in April 2014, 7,969 women and children were staying at the 627 shelters for abused women in Canada; 73% of these individuals were there primarily because of abuse and 25% had stayed at that same shelter before;
- women comprise 70% of sexual violence victims according to self-reported data and in virtually all police-reported incidents (99%), the accused perpetrator was male; and
- reporting rates to police of sexual assaults are low; about 50% of spousal sexual assaults and around 90% of non-spousal sexual assaults are unreported.
Violence affects women of all social, economic and cultural groups. However, certain groups of women are at greater risk of victimization, in particular Indigenous women and immigrant women.
Vulnerable populations: Indigenous women
Indigenous women – including First Nations, Métis and Inuit women – are more likely to be targets of violence than non-Indigenous women. Between 1980 and 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police indicated that Indigenous women accounted for a greater percentage of missing women (11%) and female homicides (16%) than their representation (4%) in Canada’s total female population.
A 2014 report by the House of Commons Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls outlined some of the root causes of such violence. Recognizing that the underlying causes are varied, complex and interrelated, the Committee identified factors such as “human trafficking, substance abuse, prostitution, poverty, lack of housing and poor living conditions, lack of prevention services such as mental health services, and the ongoing legacy of residential schools,” as well as systemic racism.
In response to the Special Committee’s report, the Government of Canada committed $25 million over five years in its 2014 Budget to efforts to reduce violence against Aboriginal women. The commitment also included implementation of its Action Plan to Address Family Violence and Violent Crimes Against Aboriginal Women and Girls.
In February 2015, Indigenous leaders and territorial and provincial premiers convened a one-day National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in which the federal government participated.
On 8 December 2015, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Status of Women and Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs announced the creation of a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The first phase is a national pre-inquiry engagement process. This is an ongoing process that includes consultations with the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to determine the design of the inquiry.
Vulnerable populations: Immigrant women
Immigrant women come to Canada from diverse source countries, with different skills and backgrounds. They arrive through different immigration programs – for instance, as refugees, sponsored spouses or as skilled professionals.
A 2015 study by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration highlighted three factors that make immigrant women in certain situations more vulnerable to abuse.
- Immigration status: women with non-secure immigration status (including temporary resident status, conditional permanent resident status, or no legal immigration status) are less likely to leave abusive partners and seek help. The perception of non-secure immigration status is also a powerful deterrent to leaving an abusive relationship.
- Being new to Canada and dependent on their partners: some immigrant women do not know their rights and are unfamiliar with Canadian criminal law. Many immigrant women who come to Canada as sponsored spouses are dependent on their partners financially and for information about, and connections to, Canadian society. This dependence is exacerbated when the women speak neither English nor French.
- Cultural background: some immigrant women come from cultures where violence against women is more accepted and where leaving situations of abuse is generally not contemplated. Further, some women may also face certain kinds of violence more common in particular cultures or sub-cultures, such as forced marriage or so-called honour-based violence.
Some of these vulnerabilities may be mitigated through government intervention, for example, the Government of Canada’s policy providing that abused sponsored spouses do not have to live with their spouse for two years to stay in Canada. Programs to raise awareness among immigrant women and girls concerning their rights under Canadian law are also important.
Finally, it is important that front-line workers, such as social services, women’s shelters and police, understand the unique vulnerabilities that immigrant women (and some Canadian citizens) may face, so that the response can be culturally sensitive and effective.
The government response to the committee’s report (July 2015) highlights ongoing work in these areas. The mandate letter for the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship also touches on the vulnerability related to conditional permanent resident status for sponsored spouses. It requires the Minister to develop “a proposal regarding permanent residency for new spouses entering Canada”.
Sinha, Maire. Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends. Juristat 85-002X. Statistics Canada, Ottawa, 25 February 2013.
World Health Organization. Violence against women: Intimate partner and sexual violence against women. Fact sheet No. 239, January 2016.