Why gender-based violence is a public health issue

Learn more about gender-based violence and why it is an important public health issue.

Violence against women is a violation of human rights and a pressing public health issue. It is estimated that one in three women and girls will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime-usually from an intimate partner.

Stephanie Montesanti, assistant professor, explains gender-based violence, the impacts it has on individuals, families and their communities, and what can be done to help those affected.

What is violence against women?

The United Nations defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."

Violence can take on many forms such as femicide, trafficking, female genital mutilation, sexual violence, forced or early marriage and intimate partner violence that can be physical, sexual and / or psychological. Almost one-third of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and / or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.

What are the impacts?

"Women can experience profound short- and long-term impacts from gender-based violence," explains Montesanti. "They may experience physical, emotional or mental health issues, as well as sexual and reproductive health problems. Gender-based violence is also a major barrier towards gender equality."

Women who suffer violence are more likely to experience:

  • Injuries,
  • self-harm,
  • fatal outcomes like homicide or suicide,
  • depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety disorders,
  • unwanted pregnancies,
  • miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term delivery and low birth weight babies,
  • alcohol, drug or tobacco misuse, and
  • sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.

Who is at risk?

"Gender-based violence happens all over the world," says Montesanti. "It doesn't matter what your income, class, race, ethnicity, culture or area code is-it can impact everyone. Gender-based violence does not discriminate."

Every hour of every day, a woman in Alberta is a victim of some form of violence by an intimate partner and almost 70 per cent of domestic violence incidents in Edmonton go unreported.

However, there are some factors that may contribute to the likelihood of a woman experiencing violence from an intimate partner including lower levels of education; history of exposure to violent behaviour or abuse; or attitudes that accept violence, male privilege and women's subordinate status.

In addition to women and girls, there are other populations that may experience higher rates of violence including the LGBTQ+ community, people living with physical or cognitive impairments, ethnic groups or lower socioeconomic groups.

Why are Indigenous women more at risk?

Statistics on self-reported rates of violent victimization show that Indigenous women are almost 3.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to report experiences of intimate partner violence. It is important to note that most violent incidents against Indigenous women go unreported to police.

But, this statistic provides only a partial picture of the experience of violence among Indigenous peoples.

"These comparative statistics help to reveal the systemic origins of violence," explains Montesanti. "Indigenous women's analysis of gendered violence is tied to a lived analysis of settler colonialism. Years of institutionalized violence and children removed from their birth families and placed in non-Indigenous environments have taken a calculated toll." Moreover, family and kinship structures have always been at the heart of the wellness of Indigenous communities and their ability to function as self-determining peoples. Colonialism has interrupted these social networks.

In 2016, the federal government initiated the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The commitment to engage with affected families and communities and create a public account of the systemic factors putting Indigenous women and girls at risk is important to understanding the root causes and underlying factors related to violence against Indigenous women and girls.

"Access to supports and services for Indigenous women is lacking," says Montesanti. "Federal funding for shelters for First Nations women is inadequate and most First Nations women do not have access to shelters in their own communities. Additionally, there is no dedicated federal funding for Inuit and Métis women. Moreover, there are barriers to shelter accessibility for women with disabilities and for LGBTQ, two-spirit and gender non-conforming people."

Montesanti's research in northern Alberta has shown that in communities wracked by generations of dislocation and loss, a recent wildfire exacerbated a host of social issues such as addiction.

How can gender-based violence be prevented?

"Strategies for addressing gendered violence need to move beyond the deficits to examining protective strategies," says Montesanti. "It is important to acknowledge stories of lived experience with violence and abuse when identifying strategies to eliminate gender-based violence. Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates across the country have been advancing strong anti-colonial and anti-violence responses that support the end goal of ending gender-based violence."

A number of promising practices aimed at preventing gender-based violence across the lifespan have been identified, including:

  • Engaging men and boys in preventing and ending gender-based violence. This includes teaching healthy masculinity, engaging men and boys in prevention strategies, rehabilitation strategies for men who have used violence, and in Indigenous communities developing programs that help men and boys develop their Métis, First Nations and Inuit identities.
  • Taking an Indigenous approach to preventing gender-based violence, with a focus on honouring the family;
  • Promoting healthy relationships, including supporting students in high school and university/college in learning about consent; and
  • Offering women tools to help identify violence and escape violent situations (e.g. embedding safety information in newcomer settlement programs, legal education, or financial literacy)

The federal government has a large role in coordinating government and non-government gender-based violence initiatives across Canada.

"While the federal government has recently released its Strategy to Address Gender-based Violence, it does not appear to focus on the structural or root causes of violence against Indigenous women, nor the specific challenges they face in dealing with, or leaving, abusive situations," explains Montesanti. "In terms of gender-based violence, one size does not fit all. A uniquely Indigenous strategy is needed to target gender-based violence in Indigenous communities, which is a significant cause of poverty among Indigenous women and children."

What can you do to help?

If someone you know has experienced or is experiencing gender-based violence there are several things you can do to support them.

  1. Listen empathetically and with no judgement.
  2. Ask about their needs and concerns.
  3. Validate their experiences and what they are sharing with you. Show that you believe and understand them.
  4. Help them take steps to increase their safety.
  5. Help connect them with additional services.
  6. Be aware of your own safety and the safety of other people.

If you or someone you know is at imminent risk, call 911.

November and December are important months to raise awareness about gender-based violence. November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It also serves as the first day of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign that concludes on December 10 or Human Rights Day.

In Canada, December 6 is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women, commemorating 14 young women who were killed in an act of gender-based violence at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1989.

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