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Preventing domestic violence

Let’s pause for a moment to let this grim statistic sink in. Every six days a woman in Canada is murdered by her partner.

Domestic violence is far too prevalent. Just in the last five years, more than one million people in Canada have reported being either physically or sexually assaulted by their partner or spouse. Again, let’s pause for a moment to let it sink in… more than one million.

This is a problem that affects all of us. The RCMP estimates the direct cost to Canadian society from injuries and chronic health problems caused by abuse at $1 billion per year, but that doesn’t factor in the social cost of adults and children who are traumatized by the violence and the depression, anxiety, poor physical health, substance abuse and suicide that it causes.

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While we’d like to think this is an urban problem, and that it isn’t happening in farm families or in our rural communities, that’s not the reality.

“Domestic violence knows no limits… it transcends socio-demographic boundaries,” says Lana Wells, Brenda Strafford chair in domestic violence in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary. Wells heads up SHIFT, The Project to End Domestic Violence, which focuses on preventing domestic violence by working in partnership with government, communities, organizations and citizens.

According to the RCMP, domestic violence affects people of all ages, rich and poor, and from every cultural and educational background. (Most domestic violence is inflicted on women by men although there are cases of men becoming victims.)

Rural society likes to think of itself as more wholesome and innocent, but it is not immune.

Sadly, when it comes to supporting domestic violence victims, rural residents can be at a disadvantage, according to Andrea Silverstone, executive director of PEER Support Services for Abused Women (PSSAW) in Calgary. “Rural communities often are not able to provide specialized domestic violence services,” Silverstone says. “Any services that may be available in rural communities are often limited and oversubscribed.”

The first steps

“Domestic violence is a complex, pervasive, costly, yet preventable problem,” says Wells.

Stress, gender inequality and exposure to domestic violence as a child all increase the risk.

Wells says men who witnessed their fathers inflicting violence on their mothers are at higher risk of becoming perpetrators and harming their own spouses and partners.

Alcohol can also exacerbate the problem.

Yet there are also factors that can reduce the risk that an individual will become abusive, including resiliency and good relationship skills.

According to the RCMP, domestic violence has been declining, which in itself is proof that relationship abuse can be stopped. It also says that changing attitudes, services for victims, treatment programs for violent men, stronger laws and pro-arrest policies are making a difference.

Now, governments and community organizations are training their resources on primary prevention instead of crisis intervention.

After an extensive review of the existing research literature, Wells and her associates have identified several strategies that will address the root causes.

One of these strategies is to involve men and boys in promoting gender equality and ending violence. By focusing on equipping men and boys with the knowledge, skills and capacities to engage in healthy relationships, domestic abuse can be stopped before it starts.

The research backs a multi-pronged approach that engages men as role models in working with other men and boys to promote positive masculinity and as violence disruptors.

The research also shows that increased positive father involvement is also associated with lower levels of family conflict and violence, and increases the likelihood that children will grow up in an emotionally and physically safe environment.

It also turns out that men’s emotional well-being is improved when they spend more time caring for their children. As well, boys who have nurturing fathers are less likely to use violence against female partners, but men can also be positive role models in the lives of young boys.

Mechanisms to increase positive male parenting can include progressive parental leave policies for men, social media campaigns to change norms and behaviours, and educational and networking programs to support fathers.

To reach out to men and boys, it’s necessary to go to where they congregate, says Wells. “We need to go where they work, play, learn, worship and socialize. We need to infuse content in these settings to develop the skills that support gender equality, that build healthy relationship skills, that teach and reinforce positive and healthy masculinities and that disrupt and stop violence.”

Adolescence is a time when values and norms around gender equality are forged. Healthy relationship skills can be taught as the Fourth R (Relationship) as part of the Grade 7 to 9 school curriculum. “By promoting respectful relationships and gender equality, and by building competencies in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making with young boys and girls, dating violence can be stopped,” says Wells.

“We all need to work to prevent violence to build a society where abuse of power is not tolerated,” the RCMP website says. “By seeing intimate partner violence and abuse for what it is — a crime — we can all take responsibility and work together as a community to stop the violence.”

Translating research into action

Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat

With funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, SHIFT worked with the Alberta communities Grande Prairie and Medicine Hat to support local service providers and community leaders in adopting strategies to prevent domestic violence.

Those working in education, health care, and community agencies were invited to participate in a series of workshops where the latest research findings on domestic violence prevention were presented, followed by a discussion of how this knowledge could best be integrated into the local community.

Over a period of eight months, the program delivered six full-day sessions. In an evaluation six months after the completion of the project, participants said the project had benefitted their individual learning, helped them to connect with others working in their community and had been translated into strategies for prevention of domestic violence in their community, particularly school-based healthy relationship programming.

Check these services

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

Shift: Project to End Domestic Violence
University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work

Canadian Women’s Foundation
Stats, information on promoting healthy relationships and grants for community programs

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child
Resources for Healthy Parenting

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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