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Two teenaged girls hand flowers to a police officer at a crime scene.
Two teenaged girls hand over flowers in Ajax, Ont., in March 2015 to a police officer in a show of sympathy for the victims of a triple slaying, a mother and her two children. The woman’s domestic partner was charged in the crime and goes to trial soon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

Federal election 2021: Gender-based violence is an issue we should all prioritize

National strategies to end gender-based violence, public activism movements like #MeToo and One Billion Rising and the continued use of tough-on-crime policies have failed to reduce rates of gender-based violence.

Read more: "Tough on crime" a waste of time -- let's be effective instead

In fact, rates continue to rise. The amplification of the concurrent pandemics of racism and violence against women and children during the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in urgent calls to action for the type of change needed to end gender-based violence.

So why isn’t gender-based violence on the federal election agenda?

Pervasive reality of gender-based violence

Before the pandemic, persistent and unacceptably high rates of intimate partner violence resulted in 107,000 victims calling the police in 2019. This number represents nearly one third of all crimes that are reported to police by victims in Canada.

When considering that only 30 per cent of this violence is reported to police, the actual numbers are much higher.

Intersectional feminists highlight the ways in which gender-based violence is intensified by forms of systemic oppression that include colonialism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia, ageism and poverty.

Indigenous women and girls are three times as likely to report being a victim of intimate partner violence, and 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other women and girls in Canada. Women living with physical and cognitive impairments experience violence two to three times more often than women living without impairments.

Academics and activists have identified how the mass shooting that killed 22 people in Nova Scotia in April 2020 is linked to gender-based violence. While it may be impossible to determine the exact number of people who are victims of domestic violence, the scope and magnitude is astounding.

Two women weep and carry red roses.
Family and friends of the victims of the April 2020 murder rampage in rural Nova Scotia, stand outside the RCMP detachment as they mark the one-year anniversary in Bible Hill, N.S. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Tough on crime strategies misguided, ineffective

In response to persistent rates of gender-based violence, pro-prosecution measures were introduced largely through the efforts of feminists to prioritize the safety of victims, to deter crimes and hold perpetrators of violence accountable. However, they have not been effective.

A recent report published by Dalhousie University shares how government lawyers (the Crown), police officers, allied professionals, victims and offenders have described these measures as punitive, not trauma-informed or family-centred, inflexible, unidirectional, outdated and unhelpful.

Victims say the criminal legal system has been harmful to them and their families, retraumatizing them and falling short of delivering justice. For those who are socially, racially and economically marginalized, these effects are compounded.

Offenders who have often experienced prior trauma and violence in their lives say imprisonment results in further violence and doesn’t encourage accountability or healing.

Read more: Let's call the Nova Scotia mass shooting what it is: White male terrorism

As such, politicians who promise to reduce gender-based and family violence through tough-on-crime strategies — like increased front-line police responses and harsher criminal sentences — are committing to action that hasn’t been shown to prevent violence and further harms to individuals, families and communities.

More often than not, the result is victims are held responsible for crimes committed against them, perpetrators are met with unhelpful punitive responses and governments fail to address the root causes of social inequity.

Government ideals that emphasize increased productivity, debt reduction and economic growth in times of uncertainty also inform policies, legislation and action that erode communities.

Transformative action needed

The motivation for renewed action must come from an acknowledgement that Canada is not a safe place for many people, particularly women and children, and that all forms of interpersonal violence are unacceptable. We must do better. Our voice matters, and we must speak out against injustices.

Transformative action requires replacing punitive one-size-fits-all measures with a critical reflection of our roles in producing and reproducing harm, a respect for lived experiences and civil dialogue that prioritizes compassionate accountability and collective healing.

These actions are also required of Canadian politicians responsible for a government that was built by oppressing Indigenous and Black people through legacies of colonialism and slavery.

Read more: Not in the past: Colonialism is rooted in the present

As we head towards the Sept. 20 election, transformative action means voting for alternatives to tough-on-crime measures and for those committed to specific, actionable and timely plans to end gender-based violence in Canada.

It also means honouring the Calls for Justice from the report on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and acknowledging the public outrage of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements as legitimate.

An Indigenous woman wipes away tears.
Lorelei Williams, centre, whose cousin was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton, wipes away tears after responding to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in June 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Voting for immediate action that shifts from the use of the criminal legal system as a viable solution to end gender-based violence is aligned with transformative action, and responds to calls for justice.

In this tumultuous time characterized by racism, gender-based violence, the unearthing of mass graves at former residential schools and loud calls to defund the police and reform criminal justice systems, it’s clear our votes matter.

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