One of the most challenging, but worthwhile, events I attended for International Women’s Day in Toronto, was the screening of Private Violence, a documentary on domestic violence in America (hosted by We Talk Women, with panelists from White Ribbon, Interval House, and Assaulted Women’s Helpline).  As I mentioned to one of the panelists after, it was a heavy topic even just to watch a documentary about, and I came away with the utmost respect for the individuals and organizations who provide advocacy and supportive services in this field, not to mention the many women who have experienced and continue to experience domestic violence firsthand.

3 things I learned:

1. We have to keep talking about this issue

The results of a recent survey commissioned by Interval House are pretty shocking.  We still excuse domestic violence: nearly 1/4 Ontarians surveyed believe that it is possible for someone to bring abuse upon themselves.  And we still stand by: Only 6/10 Ontarians would consider intervening if someone told them they were in an abusive relationship, and 1/3 felt that they would not know what to do if they suspected abuse.

What the panelists wanted to suggest in light of the survey results, is that much like how drinking and driving, or smoking became socially unacceptable in the past generation, if people continue to speak up to support the victims/survivors and check the perpetrators, there is hope for a similar shift in societal attitudes. And while many of us think that we would hesitate to intervene and wouldn’t know what to do if someone we knew was in an abusive relationship, the panelists explained that intervening doesn’t have to mean breaking into someone’s home like a superhero – simply sharing your ear or believing someone’s story can be enough to start.

2. We have to think upstream

Domestic abuse is absolutely a public health issue, and my public health background makes me think of prevention in three stages: preventing domestic abuse from occurring in the first place (primary prevention), identifying cases of domestic abuse and preventing it from continuing (secondary prevention), and minimizing the long-term impacts and harm for victims/survivors, and even perpetrators (tertiary prevention).

There are definitely huge needs to just support the victims/survivors of domestic abuse in those last two stages of secondary and tertiary prevention.  However, in public health, we try and look upstream, and think about that primary prevention stage.  One of the panelists mentioned that there is a correlation between witnessing domestic abuse as a child, and becoming either a victim or perpetrator of violence in the future.  Knowing this, they always try and protect the children in their frontline work, and/or provide counselling and therapy afterwards to try and break the cycle.  This is just one example, domestic violence is such a complex problem and there may be many other root causes that contribute to its onset.  One area that we think is really important, of course, is engaging boys and men in learning about violence against women, as well as healthy relationships and healthy masculinities.

3. We have to stop asking ‘Why didn’t they just leave?’

This seems to be one of the most common myths when it comes to domestic abuse.  There are a myriad of reasons why someone would choose stay in an abusive relationship, and even if they wanted to leave, feel like they were unable to.  And when someone actually does leave an abusive partner, sadly this is when they are at the greatest risk for being killed.

One takeaway for me, is that leaving an abusive relationship is a process, not a single event.  At any point during this process, “Why didn’t you just leave?” is probably the least helpful question to ask.  We need to honour the courage and bravery of anyone who finds themselves in this situation, and stop blaming or shaming.  The questions we should be asking are: Why are they abusive? What support do you need to be safe? How can we break the cycle of violence?

P.S. check out Interval House and Assaulted Women’s Helpline in particular for more resources.

— Jason