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Montreal Families

More action needed to protect women from domestic violence

A crisis that is disproportionately affecting women is seemingly going unchecked in this province, and women’s advocates and organizations are calling for urgent change.

In September, three women were killed in a two-week span. Synthia Bussières, 38, and her children aged 2 and 5 were found unconscious in an apartment fire in Brossard. They all succumbed to their injuries and Bussières’ spouse has been charged with their killings. A week earlier, Viergemene Toussaint, 42, was found dead in her apartment in Montreal North. Her ex-boyfriend has been charged with first degree murder. And on September 8, Gisèle Ital Betondi was murdered in front of her young children outside her LaSalle home. Betondi’s estranged husband has been charged with first-degree murder.

These deaths bring the year’s total number of femicides — the killing of women and girls — to 10. In 2021, 26 women were killed in Quebec, the vast majority by a partner, ex-partner, or a male acquaintance. Last year was the deadliest for women in the province since 2008.

Urgent action needed to educate professionals

The Fédération des maisons d’hébergement pour femmes (FMHF), which represents 36 emergency shelters as well as 23 second stage transitional housing shelters across Quebec, recently urged provincial leaders to prioritize training for health personnel to sensitize them to the signs of domestic violence. This includes professionals in family medicine, perinatal care, social workers and others.

The Government Action Plan on Domestic Violence 2018-2023 provides a six-hour training module on the detection of domestic violence for health and social service professionals but it is not mandatory.

“It must be understood that in every situation of domestic violence, there are warning signs and a similar modus operandi on the part of violent partners,” says Manon Monastesse, executive director of the FMHF. “A vision and an understanding of the problem is necessary to really protect these women. Mandatory and ongoing training must be offered to staff so that the concept of coercive control is understood and assessed in the right way.”

As Quebec’s domestic violence situation escalates, there are also growing calls for politicians and stakeholders to ensure greater access to social programs as well as early prevention and detection.

SOS violence conjugale, a front-line service for victims and their loved ones, estimated that it received 7,000 more calls in 2020-2021 than in 2019-2020. The number reached 200 calls per day, while the average was 90 in 2019. In March 2021, after seven femicides in seven weeks, the non-profit organization called for an immediate mobilization of all Quebecers to bring attention to the crisis and help stem the wave of unprecedented violence.

A digital toolbox on the organization’s website was designed to allow citizens to show their solidarity on social networks and share resources.

Shelters for women victims of domestic violence and their children were also in greater demand in 2020, yet 15,000 people had to be turned away due to a lack of available places. A survey of 266 shelters across Canada revealed a similar picture.

Violence worsened during pandemic

A spring 2022 study conducted by a team of researchers from the Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS) showed an increase in the number and seriousness of violent acts committed against women by a spouse or ex-spouse that started at the beginning of the pandemic.

To gather data, 3,500 women who were in relationship responded during four key moments of the pandemic from November 2020 to October 2021. The study showed that the pandemic has contributed to the increase in the number of women living in a situation with a high potential for violence inflicted by their spouse or partner.

Violent acts fluctuated depending on the evolution of the pandemic, peaking in February and October 2021, when Quebec experienced its strictest health measures. In October 2021, one woman in six reported either a verbal or psychological form of abuse. The lowest instances of violence were in June 2021, which corresponded to the summer’s loosening of restrictions.

Domestic abuse is a global issue

World Health Organization (WHO) statistics indicate that the leading cause of violence against women globally is domestic. Approximately one in three women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

The organization deems this a major global public health concern, particularly during epidemics. Stress, disruption of social and protective networks, reduced access to alternative sources of housing such as shelters and hotels, increased economic hardship, and decreased access to services are all cited as issues that exacerbated women’s risk of suffering violence during the pandemic. During the height of COVID-19, isolation, restricted movement, and stay-at-home measures had a particularly acute impact on women’s risk of being exposed to violence.

Abuse comes in many forms

The Government of Canada fact sheet on intimate partner violence (IPV) explains that abuse can occur in both public and private settings as well as online. It can include physical abuse, criminal harassment (stalking) including through texts or email messages. Sexual violence includes acts without consent, threats of repercussions for refusing sexual activity, forcing someone to watch or participate in the making of pornography, and sexually degrading language and belittling sexual comments. Other forms of IPV include emotional or psychological abuse such as insults, constant humiliation, or threats to take away children as well as control or misuse of money.

SOS violence conjugale : 7 féminicides en 7 semaines #pasunedeplus (Groupe CNW/SOS Violence conjugale)

Questionnaire helps women determine risk level of abuse

For many women who are abused, it is hard to know if and when the violence will escalate to a point where their lives are in danger. But there is a tool that has been created in the United States that can help women and health care professionals.

The Danger Assessment helps assess an abused woman’s likelihood of being killed by her intimate partner. The tool was originally developed by Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell from Johns Hopkins University, with consultation from battered women, shelter workers, law enforcement officials, and other clinical experts on battering.

There are two parts: a calendar and a 20-question assessment.

The calendar helps to assess severity and frequency of battering during the past year. The woman is asked to mark the approximate days when physically abusive incidents occurred, and to rank the severity of the incident on a scale of one to five. This portion was conceptualized as a way to raise the consciousness of the woman and reduce denial and minimization of the abuse.

The 20 questions help women assess how much risk they face of being seriously harmed or killed. Some of the risk factors include past death threats, partner’s employment status and access to a gun.

To access the assessment, visit dangerassessment.org.

Where to go for help or to access resources

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

Shelter Safe
If you feel unsafe in your home or relationship and need support, visit sheltersafe.ca/quebec for resources in Quebec.

SOS violence conjugale (SOS domestic violence)
SOS violence conjugale workers welcome, assess, inform, support and direct women who are victims of domestic violence and their loved ones to specialized services.
Across Quebec: 1 800 363-9010
Montreal: 514 873-9010

Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale
There are member houses of the Regroupement in all regions of Quebec. Their address is confidential to ensure the safety of women who use their services. They can be reached by phone anytime, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 514-873-9010
Find one close to you here maisons-femmes.qc.ca/maisons-membres

Montreal Women’s Aid
Shelter for abused women and children. Accompaniment, orientation and intervention services for women and children.
24/7 support line: 514-270-8291

Auberge Shalom pour femmes
Shelter for women victims of domestic violence and their children with specialized services for Jewish women. Psychosocial services and interventions, support, referral, helpline.
24/7 support line: 514-731-0833

Rebâtir (rebuild)
This program offers free, confidential services by legal aid lawyers. You can get 4 hours of legal advice if you are experiencing sexual violence or domestic violence. Call 1-833-REBATIR (732-2847) every day between 8:30 am and 4:30 pm or visit rebatir.ca

Women’s Centre of Montréal
Created by women, for women, the Centre’s team of workers and volunteers offers crisis Intervention, information, services and court support for women who have experienced domestic violence. Services are offered in multiple languages. Call 514 842-4780 or visit centredesfemmesdemtl.org

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s Stop Family Violence website is a one-stop source of information on family violence and has resources and information for anyone experiencing family violence.

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