In 1984 the City of Ottawa struck a Task Force on Wife Assault. The impetus for this innovative development reflected a time where the public consciousness about the historic and systemic problem of violence against women was beginning to surface. The fact that women were and continue to be overwhelmingly the victims in their private homes was masked and diluted by its characterization as “domestic violence.” We have persistently called it what it is: violence against women and have broadened its scope to “woman abuse.” This more accurately included the pattern of sometimes invisible violence such as verbal intimidation and financial abuse which plays out often in custody battles and long after a couple has separated.
The Task Force on Wife Assault triggered the need to have a community forum to ensure that their recommendations were consistently implemented and the momentum sustained. This body was structured as a coalition of partners under the Regional Coordinating Committee to End Violence Against Women (RCCEVAW). In 2006, it was re-named the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women (OCTEVAW). This awakening owes much to the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. We lived in a culture of societal institutions and structures that tolerated the right of husbands and fathers to discipline their wives and children with impunity. The infamous “rule of thumb” was developed as a standard; meaning the stick should not be thicker than the thumb of the man using it. The analysis of family dynamics and women’s rights challenged these concepts and began a worldwide social movement to end violence against women at all levels. The first formal expose was the U.K. publication of Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear You (Erin Pizzey, 1974).
Then in 1976, Interval House of Ottawa was opened as a refuge second to Interval House of Toronto. Thus began the women’s shelter movement which was at the forefront of this gathering momentum. Interval House Ottawa was followed by the opening of five first-stage women’s shelters over the years; Maison d’Amitie, La Presence, Lanark County Interval House, Nelson House, and Chrysalis House. Harmony House, the only second-stage women’s shelter in Eastern Ontario, opened in 1987, while Oshki Kizis Lodge opened to homeless and Aboriginal women in 2001. The struggle began to prove that sustainable funding from government sources was a necessity, along with the challenge to build a donor base that would demonstrate public commitment and community building. Fortunately during the early 80s, the federal, provincial and municipal governments responded with their own reports and set up programs within their Ministries and Departments. In 1984, a report was commissioned by the mayor Marion Dewar and steered by Maude Barlow and myself.
It provided a platform to launch the coalition by focussing on the need for police, health and social service agencies and housing initiatives to examine their policies and responses to “domestic violence.” Since then, many Canadian studies, reports and consultations were released and have all contributed to placing the issue of violence against women on the political agenda. This research gave validity to the experience that the overwhelming victims in the home are women and by extension their children who are traumatized by witnessing their mothers being abused. In particular there was the early publication of Battered But Not Beaten (Linda MacLeod, 1987) commissioned by the Advisory Council on the Status of Women. In it she drew upon interviews and the many research projects and books both domestically and internationally. Similarly the federal government conducted a far-reaching survey through the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women, that resulted in Changing the Landscape: Ending Violence-Achieving Equality (Minister of Supply and Services, 1993).
The coalition model was conceived as a community-based grassroots and collaborative approach. It was based on a clear understanding that the power to influence public policy rested on an organized, broad and cohesive constituency that could articulate its purpose and reflect women’s experiences and the view of service providers at the ground level. The stated objectives at that time, which remain today, are the coordination of services, resource development, public education, outreach and advocacy. The coalition brought together counselling services, academics, housing providers and mandated programs such as Probation and Parole and the Children’s Aid Society. The police, central to the protection of women as first-line responders, were brought to the table. This created a long and productive dialogue on how the police could better respond to and protect women and initiative positive policy changes. Similarly, the courts, as part of the criminal justice and family law process were brought into the exchange to ensure that the best interests of women and their children were served. For example, in 1995, the coalition participated in the setting up of the Round Table designed to engage senior policy makers and to examine the Criminal Justice System as a whole. In the course of this process a critical shift in dynamics occurred. The police, courts and women’s groups were able to appreciate each other’s complex roles and these understandings contributed to mutual respect and concrete results.
Along the way other agencies were born out of the coalition, including; Immigrant Women Services Ottawa, the Sexual Assault Network, the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program, Cultural Interpretation Services and New Directions. Coalition subcommittees gave focus to issues affecting aboriginal women, women with disabilities and women in lesbian relationships, all of whom had been left out of mainstream violence against women dialogue. An understanding of the complexities and unintended consequences of policies has evolved but the main thrust remains the same. The coalition has benefited from the work of the Woman Abuse Council in Toronto, the Committee in London Ontario and the innovative experiences in Duluth, Minnesota, Denver, Colorado and the police department in San Diego, California. The community infrastructure and the reorganization of the coalition are giving new energy to meet the challenges of the naysayers. Especially worrisome is the fact that the violence against women issue is slipping from the centre stage of government support and the fact that the forces behind the backlash have insidiously infiltrated the media. Our herstory is a testament to our determination not to let the issue of violence against women and all its manifestations fall into the background.
Violence against women is a human-rights violation and a societal crisis to be eliminated.
Joan Gullen, Founder of RCCEVAW 2008