With the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre and the National Day of Remembrance and Day of Action on Violence Against Women on December 6 and the Global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign having run from November 25 to December 10, now is a good time to reflect on domestic violence in Canada and what can be done to provide better supports. In a statement on the 16 Days Campaign, Minister for Women and Gender Equality, Maryam Monsef suggests that more research is needed to truly understand and address domestic violence in Canada. One policy to address domestic violence already exists at a provincial level throughout Canada and can be improved upon without extensive research: domestic violence leave.
Participation in the labor force has long been gendered. The male participation rate remained over 90% from the 1950s to the 2010s while the female participation rate experienced a continual incline over the same period (24% in the 1950s to over 80% in the 2010s). Given the predominance of men in the labor force, employment benefits were designed specifically with men in mind. With employees across Canada having gradually gained access to domestic violence leave since 2016 when Manitoba became the first province to pass such a legislation, this masculinized employment benefit trend appears to be diminishing.
Domestic violence leave policies can be seen as representing a step toward greater gender equality in both a physical and economic sense. The policies provide support to mitigate against gender-based violence while also providing job protection to prevent economic setbacks. For the most part though, women are simply being incorporated into existing forms of social stratification established by market forces. What is being produced then, is market-based gender equality in which those women in higher paying employment positions are given greater benefits than those with low-paying positions.
There is an urgent need for greater federal oversight and investment to make domestic violence leave accessible to everyone. Access to benefits designed to assist individuals exiting from domestic violence should not depend on employment status.
Domestic Violence in Canada: An Intersectional Issue that Requires a Broad Policy Response
The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines domestic violence as gender-based violence that can be categorized into three broad categories (that can be overlapping): physical, psychological, and sexual. Violence against women and domestic violence are highly interconnected given that women are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence compared to men. Overall rates of domestic violence in Canada decreased in the 1980s and 1990s, increased slightly in the late 2010s, and then increased dramatically in 2020 following covid-19 lockdown measures. The comparison between men and women in Canada using data from 2018 can stand in for the whole, however, given that the gendered trend has remained stable throughout the fluctuations (Figure 1).
The gendered nature of domestic violence in Canada relates directly to the gendered nature of the (declining) welfare state. The 1990s and first decade and a half of the 2000s represented a major scaling back of the welfare state and disassembly of the gender equality gains that stemmed from the post-war welfare state arrangements. With welfare states are a set of citizenship rights; citizens of particular states are entitled to social benefits that allow them to exist on equal footing with others in society. Shifts in the welfare state have undermined citizenship rights by reducing social benefits and promoting greater self-sufficiency in their place. Rather than receiving support from the welfare state, citizens were increasingly expected to meet their own needs. Thus, gender-equalizing social benefits are once again less common after heightened awareness in the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women’s activism.
From this point, “the framing of domestic violence in terms of legislation, policies, and state intervention [has tended] to fit disturbingly well within the neoliberal framework.” The neoliberal framework in this sense relies on criminalization of perpetrators and individualization of survivors and victims. While celebrated for recognizing gender-based violence and domestic violence as a legitimate issue, it does little to ensure that those who report domestic and gender-based violence are protected by a social safety net. Rather, it is expected that individuals will be able to self-sufficiently take care of themselves. Many individuals experiencing domestic violence choose not to report the crime to the police. This is especially the case when their choices are to continue living with an abuser or shifting into homelessness and/or poverty. Covid-19 further complicated these two options given that shelters were forced to operate at a limited capacity to prevent the spread of the virus while all movements and attempts to flee were more closely monitored by abusers during lockdown periods.
The current domestic violence leave approach taken by the state views all individuals through the same lens, regardless of race, class, and citizenship status. This leads to the false belief that all individuals are equally autonomous and capable of addressing their own problems without additional state support. With this, not only does the gendered component of domestic violence go under-recognized, but also the increased risk of marginalized communities goes unrealized.
Despite the exceedingly gendered nature of domestic violence in Canada, this very gendered nature is often glossed over. For instance, with the École Polytechnique massacre the term ‘massacre’ itself diminishes the explicitly gendered nature of the act by implying that Marc Lépine acted indiscriminately. In reality he made explicit that he hated feminists and killed women who represented progress towards gender equality. The Canadian news media continually undermines the gendered nature of domestic violence as well by treating domestic homicides simply as regular homicides, ignoring that domestic homicides are part of a larger societal issue by providing excuses for the accused male’s behavior. To address public opinion and media presentations on domestic violence, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability has created a campaign, #CallItFemicide, to expose the gendered nature of domestic homicide.
Domestic violence, is not only gendered but also directly related to additional intersectional inequalities. While all women can be impacted by domestic violence, women with intersecting risk factors, such as immigrant women and Indigenous women, are disproportionately impacted by violence and face greater barriers in attaining support. Aside from racial and language-based risk factors, poverty is also a key factor. This is not to say that high achieving women do not experience domestic violence, some certainly do and this scenario may also be increasing with the gendered employment impacts of the covid-19 pandemic; rather that, class, race, Indigenous status, and citizenship status put certain women at an increased risk.
Overall, rather than moving beyond the neoliberal approaches of the past, current policies being put in place to address domestic violence are furthering the individualized nature of the criminalization approach. The embrace and implementation of domestic violence leave policies means that the approach to domestic violence is not only individualized but also marketized. While the job protection element of this new policy approach is highly applaudable, the other elements are highly suspect given how financial benefits that can be used to help leave an abusive relationship are now dependent upon location within Canada and employment status.
Domestic Violence Leave Policies in Canada’s Provinces: Further Privatizing and Individualizing ‘Supports’
With the decline of the welfare state, the market, and more specifically workplaces, have increasingly been expected to address the issue of domestic violence through employment leave policies. The politics of leave benefits in Canada has never been simple. Typically, battles over benefits happen at the federal level given the greater capability of raising funds through taxes. Employment Insurance, which now encompasses multiple types of leave benefits that align with job protection, was centralized at a federal level in the post-war setting as a result of municipalities being overwhelmed by high rates of unemployment.
While these benefits have remained less than desirable from a gendered perspective, given that benefits are related to employment status and number of hours worked that align more with male workers than female workers, this type of benefit has national standards. With the push toward domestic violence leave policies across Canada, guidelines have been left completely open to the provinces. This has created a patchwork of benefits (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Canada’s Patchwork of Domestic Violence Leave Policies
Domestic violence leave policies, in theory, are highly useful. In Canada, women who are employed are at a slightly higher risk of experiencing physical domestic violence than are unemployed women whereas women who are unemployed are at a slightly higher risk of experiencing psychological domestic violence than are employed women. However, it is less clear if domestic violence leave policies in practice are effective given how informal institutional norms can at times override formal institutional rules.
In a survey of 8,429 Canadian workers, almost all respondents believed that domestic violence negatively impacted work performance, given that home life enters the workplace. Another study, though, before many of the provinces implemented official Domestic Violence Leave policies, found that the majority of surveyed employees were not receiving information about domestic violence supports available in the workplace. Those least likely to know about domestic violence supports in the workplace, it was found, were those who had experiences with domestic violence and those in non-permanent and part-time positions. Meaning, the supports were not reaching the population that could most benefit from them.
Additionally, the degree of economic support individuals have access to when leaving domestic violence should not depend on employment achievements. Women who are not employed, or have had to change employment frequently as a result of domestic violence (and therefore have not been employed by the same employer for 90 days, 13 weeks, or 3 months that are required by all provinces except for two) will not qualify for financial benefits.
When considering who benefits from domestic violence leave policies in their current form, it is a question of degree when it comes to individuals accessing the benefit. However, for provinces, such policies provide them with a guise of progress and the image of working towards greater gender equality. Once in place it is up to employers to handle the everyday components of the benefit. Thus, this type of policy can make provinces look progressive with little actual change. True progress on gender equality will not be accomplished until all women have equal access to benefits that can help them escape from violent relationships.
Equalizing Supports for All
Introducing market place measures and celebrating both national and international remembrance days and days of action is not enough to make substantial change on the issue of domestic violence. There is a need for significant investment in domestic violence measures at a federal level. Not only is there a need to better fund domestic violence shelters, which has happened to a certain degree due to the increased levels of domestic violence during the covid-19 pandemic, but there is also a significant need to reinvest in a social safety net that will allow all women to be able to leave violent environments without fear of poverty or homelessness.
As feminists, and potentially non-feminists, reflecting on the monumental days of action and remembrance around domestic violence is necessary to put greater pressure on the federal government to make these necessary large-scale changes. Ability to leave an abusive relationship should not depend on employment status nor economic status. Rather, there should be supports in place for all who need help. This is what citizenship rights were designed to do: to provide equal rights for all citizens, including the right to be free of violence.