Advocate seeks more programs for rural women

·5 min read

Editor's note: This story was first published on Nov. 16. This version adds a time frame for a statistic on intimate partner violence.

November is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and late last week Justice Minister Cliff Cullen announced a few enhancements to supports it offers women who have experienced intimate partner violence.

The areas the government focused on are supports for women whose current or former partners are taking part in restorative justice proceedings, as well as a protection order designate training program.

Further, group programming will be available, including a new online workshop on healthy relationships launching this month. According to the release, the workshop will support victims whose matters are proceeding through restorative justice and covers topics such as the impacts of trauma, how to stay safe and self-care.

"What the government is going to be doing is actually based in Winnipeg. We’re missing the rural communities," said Kim Iwasiuk, director of counselling and advocacy at The Women’s Resource Centre in Brandon.

In 2018 in Manitoba, 5,105 women experienced intimate partner violence, according to a report by Statistics Canada. That number is based on reporting to police. Experts know that rates of all forms of family violence are underestimated, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. For example, in 2014, fewer than one in five (19 per cent) who had been abused by their spouse reported abuse to police.

Also according to a 2014 General Social Survey on Victimization, self-reported spousal violence of Indigenous women is three times higher than non-Indigenous women in Canada.

Statistics Canada states intimate partner violence often occurs as physical violence. However, there are many other forms of violence or abuse, including emotional abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse and financial abuse, according to the Statistics Canada report on the subject.

"Intimate partner violence also has a criminal component, as it can involve criminal offences such as assault, uttering threats or harassment, and can even lead to homicide," the report states.

Iwasiuk said the resource centre sees women struggling in rural and northern Manitoba.

"And there are such barriers and challenges for them to get to any supportive services. I mean, I’m so happy that Winnipeg is doing this, but we need those services in our area, as well," she said.

Cathy Cox, minister responsible for the status of women, stated in the news release that "providing online options is pivotal to be able to serve all Manitobans and ensure they are safe, wherever they are."

But online services for rural women aren’t necessarily the answer. Iwasiuk lives in rural Manitoba and doesn’t have internet service.

"And it’s so expensive. I hear that Prime Minister Trudeau has that in the works, but we’ll see. So, yes, services are very spotty," she said.

Trudeau has promised to connect 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026. The $1.75-billion universal broadband fund was launched last week.

Regardless, Iwasiuk said that with people staying home because of COVID-19, a woman experiencing intimate partner violence may not even be able to access the internet safely if the perpetrator is home.

"Due to the monitoring or the control that’s going on in the home," she said.

Other supportive services are also harder to come by, such as access to food banks and shelters. There are barriers to transportation to larger centres, which also impede rural women getting help.

"We have many, many rural women who access our services, and it is such a challenge to be able to even get them into Brandon," Iwasiuk said.

She said it’s not just Brandon that needs enhanced services, but also small rural centres such as Dauphin and Swan River.

The Women’s Resource Centre has seen an uptick in gender-based violence, for women and children since the pandemic began. That’s also the case for sexual assaults. Worldwide, there are reports that domestic violence has increased by roughly 30 per cent.

"We knew this was coming. We certainly predicted it, as women’s agencies, and we’re certainly there, now. By September, our numbers really started going up. It took a little bit of time for us to see those those statistics, and now they’re really rolling forward," Iwasiuk said.

The resource centre always has a wait list for its services, but it had been manageable, she said.

"COVID hit in March. By June, we were in a situation with the wait list for women and children that we could not manage anymore," Iwasiuk said.

The centre did manage to get funding for two short-term counsellors, whose sole job is to attend to the women, and children, on the wait list.

"The reason that we’re doing that is we know with gender-based violence women can’t wait. They’re at such risk. And when they make that phone call, we need to be able to see them as quickly as possible. They need a new protection order. They may need to move out of their residence, they need to go into the women’s shelter," Iwasiuk said.

"We’re certainly seeing isolation, the economic issues that we’re in this present time, job loss, children not in school as being contributing factors to family violence."

The funding for those two position ends in March.

"But domestic violence is not short-term," Iwasiuk said.

However, she was happy to hear about the protection order designate training. The resource centre will be receiving that web-based training beginning in November and December.

"That will allow more protection order designates to be trained in Brandon. There’s very few of us. So we can assist women who are in need of protection orders. We’ve been waiting two years for this program to come to Brandon," she said.

The Women’s Resource Centre does run a legal clinic free of charge to help women navigate the legal system.

The province provides funding to support a confidential 24/7 toll-free crisis line staffed by shelters across the province. Manitobans can call 1-877-977-0007, text 204-792-5302 or 204-805-6682, or visit gov.mb.ca/familyviolence. However, in an emergency, dial 911 or call the local police service.

Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun