The day honours the lives of 14 young women who were murdered while attending l’École Polytechnique de Montréal in what has been described as “an act of gender-based violence that shocked the nation.” The young women who died are understood to have been killed because they were women.
Canada’s memorial falls within the internationally recognized 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, which runs from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, until International Human Rights Day on December 10. Events such as these provide a chilling annual reminder of the persistence of violence against women (VAW) in Canada and around the globe. They invite those working in health and health care to reflect upon VAW as a health issue and what can be done in response to it.
BC Women’s offers support to anyone aged 13 or older who has been sexually assaulted within the past seven days at two sites in the Lower Mainland: Vancouver General Hospital Emergency Department (24/7 service) and the UBC Urgent Care centre at the Koerner Pavilion (8 a.m. – 10 p.m., daily).
Sexual assault is any form of sexual contact without consent. It is a form of violence.
What is your role at BC Women’s?
I am the medical director of BC Women’s Sexual Assault Service (SAS), the longest running ambulatory care program at the hospital. As the medical director, I manage the medical aspects of the service, including roles locally and provincially, education, protocols and teaching. I also have an active clinical role, seeing patients (not just women) who have been sexually assaulted. I am very fortunate to work with an amazing team of dedicated individuals!
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
I love my work, especially seeing patients. However, the most challenging aspect for me is seeing the same patient through the sexual assault service or as an Emergency room physician more than once, knowing that they have suffered repeated violence.
You work with a very vulnerable population. Have you seen a rise in sexual assault and how does violence against women impact people?
The number of patients seen by the SAS has increased by 25 per cent over the past two years. I am not sure if this reflects an increase in the number of sexual assaults occurring or that people are feeling more comfortable accessing care from us – I hope it is the latter.
Sadly, the effects of violence impacts everyone: the individual, their family, the community and society. Violence causes a domino effect on a country’s human, social and economic growth, and the world is metaphorically poorer for it.
A staggering statistic is one in three women will experience violence in their lifetime. Based on your experience, what are the most common signs of potential violence?
I think the biggest issue is that violence is not just physical, it can be emotional, threatened or implied, and is pervasive in all aspects of society. All of these relative forms of violence can impact a person’s ability to recognize danger, or potentially take action. Sadly, it is often not about just “walking away” from a situation, because this in itself can trigger further violent repercussions.
Given the difficult nature of your role, what do you find most rewarding?
Even after 20 years, I still love the clinical aspects of what I do, especially when I feel that I have helped someone through what may be arguably one of the worst episodes of their lives. I am tremendously humbled by the resilience of the human spirit.
What are some positive steps you see that are helping to eliminate violence against women?
I believe we are finally reaching a place where violence against women is no longer a taboo subject: people are talking about it, considering the impacts, and enacting change in the best ways that they can – individually, collectively and globally. I am a believer that small steps can still take you a long way, and that we are heading in the right direction.
- Violence is the leading cause of death and disability among women at all ages and it has multiple health and social consequences.
- Violence against women is difficult to measure, as much goes unreported, therefore estimates need to be interpreted with caution.
- Police reported data typically differ substantially from self-reported survey responses to questions on victimization such as those asked in the General Social Survey
- Using such sources, it is believed that as many as 1 in 3 women in Canada will experience sexual assault at some point in their lives.
- While violence against women occurs throughout the life course of women, women aged 18 – 44, the prime reproductive years, are particularly vulnerable.
- While violence is a problem for women in all social classes, certain groups of women are especially vulnerable, including: women with a disability; women from minority ethnic or indigenous communities; refugees and asylum seekers; lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex individuals (who are particularly at risk of non-partner sexual assault); low-income women; women living with HIV infection; and those living in rural and remote communities; and women doing sex work. Note that a given individual may occupy several of these groups simultaneously.
Cecilia Benoit, Leah Shumka, Rachel Phillips, Mary Clare Kennedy, and Lynne Belle-Isle, December 2015