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Out from the shadows

Women's studies programs have changed how we view violence against women.


Despite their cultural, political and economic differences, the nations of the world are surprisingly similar when it comes to violence against women. Amnesty International says that domestic violence is the main cause of death and health problems among women around the globe. Even in Canada, with laws, social consciousness and means of intervention, domestic violence takes the life of a woman every six days.

So it’s no surprise that, since its birth some 30 years ago, women’s studies has swept violence against women out of the shadows and made it a major research topic, as much to denounce the ravages as to reveal its underpinnings and help prevent it.

For instance, at a recent law conference at the University of Ottawa, retired Supreme Court Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé lamented the stereotypes that continue to blur the vision of Canada’s courts and their ability to accept “that no means no.” Hearsay, innuendo and references to medical records still abound, she said. Stiff sentences don’t.

That said, if you ask Huguette Dagenais, chair of Université Laval’s Summer Institute on Women’s Studies, “feminist studies have helped break a longstanding silence” on violence against women. She remembers a time when talking about domestic violence was strictly taboo, because of cultural mores and ingrained perceptions.

“Today, people are keenly aware of the issue – there are laws, services, interventions, even research centres,” she says.

The statistics back her up: in 1987, just over 6,500 complaints of domestic violence were lodged in Canada. By 2007, more than 17,300 had been filed–an increase of 266 percent. That increase, according to researchers, reflects more reporting, not more abuse.

Nicole Prévost, interim director of a Quebec City rape-crisis centre called Viol-Secours, adds that services are better known, people no longer tolerate abuse, and the courts now convict husbands of murder – no longer called a “crime of passion” – if they kill their wives. And though the problem persists, domestic murders dropped from 16.5 per million inhabitants in 1974 to 6.3 per million in 2006.

In response to the massacre of 14 female students at the École Polytechnique in 1989, Health Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funded the creation of five research centres to help demystify the violence inflicted on women. The result has been a much more structured approach to knowledge creation in the field, says Geneviève Lessard, director of the Quebec-based Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Family Violence and Violence Against Women.

Carmen Gill, of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Research on Family Violence (affiliated with the University of New Brunswick), agrees. She says that on the strength of solid scientific inquiry, the five research centres have not only changed researchers’ and policy-makers’ perceptions of the problem but also have produced tremendous expertise.

Today, violence against women carries a broader definition in scientific circles, and it’s studied in the light of previously ignored phenomena or, as Dr. Gill puts it, keeping in mind particular realities, such as the role of colonialism and oppression in the violence exacted on aboriginal women, or the vulnerability of elderly women, pregnant women or women with disabilities.

Given this wider perspective, the Summer Institute on Women’s Studies based at Université Laval (May 31 to June 6) was to focus this year on violence against women. According to the institute’s organizer, Huguette Dagenais, the sessions were to explore such frontline topics as the trafficking of women, sexuality at school, violence among the elderly, violence against aboriginal women and female co-workers, and rape and sexual assault used as tactics of war.

This broader look at violence allows women’s studies to shed light on different realities or special circumstances that most often go unnoticed in standard police investigations or in general studies. Some groups, such as women who don’t speak French or English and women who don’t have phone service, aren’t even found in the statistics. These factors are reflected in the estimate that only one-third of all attacks on women are reported to the police.

Now, backed by enough historical perspective to report more accurately on the full scope of violence, the field of women’s studies is helping to expand prevention strategies and interventions in line with these different realities.

Assia Kettani
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  1. Megan / June 15, 2009 at 15:41

    It would seem, given the points this article makes regarding the vital contribution of Women’s Studies to research on violence against women, that the University of Guelph’s recent decision to cut their Women’s Studies program is all the more wrong-headed.

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