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PAT CULLEN: Women have waited long enough

It reads like a catalogue of horrors. In Newfoundland and Labrador, a province of slightly over 500,000, approximately one in two women over the age of 15 will be assaulted or sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Roughly 10 per cent will report the assault to police.

According to an Oct. 6 press release from the Provincial Action Network on the Status of Women (PANSOW), made up of the eight Status of Women’s Councils within the province, we have one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country and it is on the rise.

During the past seven months, three young women have been murdered here. The time is long overdue to eradicate brutality against women and girls. It is also time for us to admit that the measures we have been taking to address gender-based violence are just not working.

It is difficult to say what will work, but if we are serious about ending this scourge, then any minister whose department deals with it should be prepared to help solve it. Jenny Wright, a PANSOW co-chair who also heads the St. John’s Status of Women Council, has identified these departments as Justice and Public Safety; Education and Early Childhood Development; Health and Community Services; Children, Seniors and Social Development and the Status of Women.

While it is imperative to know why the level of violence is so high, I will take it a step further and question why violence against women and girls exists at all. Until that key question is addressed, it is not only pointless to move on — it may very well be impossible. As a woman, until I know why I am regarded as so much human flotsam because I was born female, then any committee formed by Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons to address this issue will do nothing more than stick a Band-Aid on consequences.

Perhaps as Wright says we should begin at the beginning by incorporating the healthy- living program used in Ontario schools since the fall of 2015 into our curriculum. It’s a program where children are taught from Grade 1 onward to engage in healthy relationships, to respect themselves and others and to resolve conflicts peacefully. It’s a new concept, so it is too early to tell whether it will be successful. But it’s worth a try.

As Wright explains, “ The exciting thing is we’re a very small province, (so) a massive curriculum change would touch every one of us and I believe within a generation we would see a huge drop in the violence.”

She and her colleagues discussed using it or something similar with the Premier’s Task Force on Education a few months ago and although task force members appeared interested and told her they would research it further and meet again with her people, that has yet to happen, she said on Dec. 2.

The justice system can be anything but fair to abuse victims. It sometimes seems more interested in protecting the rights of the abuser than the woman who has suffered at his or her hands. Small wonder that so few women report their abuse to police. For those determined to seek redress in the courts, it means a constant reliving of the nightmare, of having your credibility and perhaps even your life’s history ripped apart by defence lawyers.

The trial judge may decide to acquit based on inconsistencies in your statement. Some inconsistencies are to be expected from any traumatized assault victim, particularly those who have only summoned the courage or have had the opportunity to come forward after a number of years. But that is the hell you may endure if you decide to pursue it.

You may get a restraining order or emergency protection order but there are so many ways to circumvent them that in doing so you may be hastening your own death. (To be fair, Andrew Parsons has indicated he will review and hopefully strengthen these peace bonds perhaps very soon through legislation, but only time will tell).

If your assailant is a spouse or partner, father of your children and the family breadwinner, you may even decide to stay with him because you just don’t have the confidence or the finances to make it on your own and with neither money, support nor earning power you will live in constant fear of having your children taken from you. How much better it would be if government gave women a basic income or a sensible minimum wage, enough money to support themselves and their families so they will not have to cling to abusive relationships because they lack the financial resources to leave.

While I have not gotten bogged down on the issue of the task force favoured by PANSOW versus the committee which has just been instituted by Minister Parsons, I agree with Jenny Wright that it will take lots of money and expertise, even outside expertise, and “political will” to solve the problem of violence against girls and women. We can no longer wait for people to tell us what they plan to do — we need them to do it. We can no longer accommodate meaningless sociological jargon and we can no longer accept the patronizing, “we’d love to help you, but we don’t have the money.”

There are over 50 per cent of us asking you, the committee, to find the money, because our lives may depend on it. You could start by making reforms to the courts and penal system. It is incomprehensible to me how a man can serve jail time for raping and beating a woman, then be released, without ever being rehabilitated and gain ready access to that same woman. This is an abomination you can rectify and I am asking on behalf of all women that you do so, just as I am asking that you remind the judiciary they are paid to dispense justice, not to mollycoddle criminals.

Pat Cullen is a journalist who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or cullen.pat1@gmail.com.

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