In April, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (SR), Dubrovka Simonovic, made the first-ever official visit to Canada by her office. I was privileged to attend one of the many sessions she held as she travelled across the country meeting with government officials, statutory human rights agencies, the Chief Commissioner of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and NGOs as well as visiting shelters and women’s prisons.
I appreciated the opportunity to talk with her about the work being done in Canada to end violence against women and to provide services to women and children who have survived that abuse. The meeting also provided an opportunity for participants to share our concerns about Canada’s responses to violence against women in this country.
But, in the way of this work, once the meeting was over, it fell to the back of my mind, displaced by other, more immediately pressing matters.
However, with the release recently of the mid-year report of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, my thoughts returned to the SR.
Deaths at an all-time high
Even as we are told that violent crime, including homicide, is lower than ever before in this country, the Observatory’s report tells a very different story when it comes to the killing of women and girls.
According to the report, 78 women and girls in Canada were killed between January and June of this year in acts of femicide. The Observatory defines femicide as “the killing of all women and girls, primarily, but not exclusively, by men.”
To give this number some context, on average, approximately 60 women are killed in Canada in a year. If the second half of 2018 continues as the first half, the total for all of the year could be more than 150.
The report acknowledges that it can only work with the information drawn from media sources. The numbers do not include women and girls whose deaths are categorized as “suspicious” or women and girls who have disappeared. In other words, the shockingly high number of 78 is lower, possible much lower, than the real number of victims of femicide.
The report includes names of all the women and girls who have been killed, listed by month. It is a hard list to read, but I encourage you to look at it — seeing the length of the list sears just how many 78 is into your brain more than reading the number 78 ever can.
We look good
As the names of these 78 dead women and girls bounced around in my head, I wondered what had come of the SR’s visit to Canada. I found her end of mission statement, which she issued before leaving Canada.
Simonovic began by noting Canada’s historic support at the United Nations for endeavours aimed at ending violence against women, including Canada’s support 23 years ago for the creation of the Special Rapporteur office. Her preliminary report said that it had been:
“ a privilege to gather firsthand information on the situation of violence against women in Canada as the first country that has a feminist government, a feminist foreign policy and a feminist international assistance policy with a clear focus on the promotion of the rights of women and girls.”
However, she also wrote:
“Violence against women in Canada is still a serious, pervasive and systemic problem: an unfinished business that requires urgent actions.”
But we don’t measure up
The SR noted many areas for improvement in Canada’s response to violence against women in this country. She noted that “women’s human rights in Canada are protected in an incomplete and patchwork way” and called on the government to establish a solid and formal mechanism for monitoring implementation of human rights obligations.
While Canada ratified CEDAW (the U.N. Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), not all of the rights it sets out have been implemented in Canadian law.
There is no national legal framework with respect to domestic violence, with the result that women in different parts of the country have different levels of protection. To overcome this, the SR recommended a federal law to combat and prevent violence against women and domestic violence.
She urged the government to adopt a National Action Plan on violence against women and domestic violence and to deploy federal spending power to improve provincial and territorial governments’ criminal justice responses to survivors.
She noted the need for increased services for women and children in rural parts of the country, where there is presently a dearth of supports and called for sustainable funding more broadly for VAW services.
Violence against Indigenous women and girls
The bulk of the SR’s end of mission statement and her greatest criticisms of the Canadian government were, not surprisingly, focused on violence against Indigenous women and girls.
She urged the government to implement a separate National Action Plan on violence against Indigenous women. She wrote that Indigenous-led programs and service delivery “should be the norm and not the exception, as is currently the case.”
She said that the government should immediately eliminate legal provisions in the Indian Act that discriminate against Indigenous women as well as a bring an end to the state removal of children from Indigenous families.
She critiqued the federal government’s Action Plan to Prevent Family Violence and Violent Crimes Against Aboriginal Women and Girls (2015 – 2020) for not being holistic and failing to address recommendations already made by the CEDAW Committee.
Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, her report spoke to the over-incarceration of Indigenous women, whose presence in Canadian prisons rose by 109% between 2002 and 2012. Not only are Indigenous women over-jailed, they lack programming that reflects their cultural values and needs.
Time for some self-criticism
As the SR noted in her end of mission statement, Canada has been outspoken about its commitment to women’s equality and violence against women in the international context. However, it is clear that what our government says internationally is not reflected in domestic reality.
Clearly, it’s time for some serious action on the issue of violence against women here.