Reflection by Notisha Massaquoi

I often recall an incident that took place many years ago at Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre where I work. During a meeting with one of the mental health therapist I noted suitcases in the corner of the office. “Where are you off to” I asked. I was to learn that the suitcases belonged to a client currently dealing with Intimate partner violence. They contained all of her valuable possessions and were being hidden in the therapists’ office for safe keeping. When the client was ready and able to leave her abusive partner she would retrieve her belongings. I could not help but wonder what were the barriers preventing this client from leaving an abusive life that would compel her to place valuable material possessions in a safe place but not her physical self. At our centre which specializes in primary healthcare for racialized women, violence against women and trans clients, is a common theme not because we come from violent communities but gender based violence is a persistent and pervasive reality for us all globally.

Our clients describe violence at the hands of strangers, employers, the state, police/military and intimate relations. They present accounts of violence perpetrated by partners, extended family, sexual abuse of female children, trafficking, forced prostitution, sexual harassment at work and school, marital rape, female genital mutilation, forced abortion based on sex selection, violence during pregnancy, date rape, abuse of women with disabilities and dowry related abuse. Narrow definitions of violence which do not take into account, race, immigration status, socioeconomic status and other forms of marginalization specific to racialized clients, limits the choices immigrant, refugee and racialized (IRR) clients will have to effectively access support services. Immigrant and refugee status along with race will determine the form or expression of violence a client may experience, it will determine how and when they name it as violence, it will determine when they choose to seek help and when they choose to seek help outside of their home or community – if at all. It will also determine how they are treated when they try to seek help and access services designed to support victim of violence.

Support services for victims of violence have been developed as safe, secure places to seek assistance. For many (IRR) clients entering into these spaces it is the most disempowering part of the entire abuse experience as opposed to the empowering framework that the violence movement purports to uphold. The strategies of racism, marginalization and subordination are often reproduced by the workers who although they may often share the same gender hold positions of power over clients in terms of information, resources and freedom. Clients are often expected to abandon cultural practices in order to conform to violence support services offered. Barriers such lack of qualified interpreters, lack of supports addressing the varied forms of immigration status, lack of ability for workers to address challenges in obtaining decent work with descent wages for racialized women and trans women in particular become pressing. The fact that IRR clients do not fit culturally with the typical clients that services are still constructed around, makes the number of services a client can be offered shrink along with their chances of a violent free life. Providing supports for IRR clients becomes a challenging issue for workers who are not equipped with the resources to ensure that the services for all victims of violence are accessible.

In the case of immigrants who have been sponsored, refugees waiting for status, or clients without or status or with precarious status, the fear of the immigration process and deportation is ever present. This is of particular concern in an immigration system which is not transparent, clearly biased against racialized individuals, does not look favorably on women with dependent children, or one that is financially inaccessible and often places immigrant and refugee clients in situations of increased violence and in increased need of gender based violence services.

Despite this fact, these services are still struggling with increasing and guaranteeing full access to supports for this population. For Black women in particular it is not far reaching that the system put in place to protect victims of gender based violence fails in cases where  members of the Black community are concerned. In a frequently hostile racist society, fear of law enforcement becomes a major deterrent in reporting acts of violence and even a violent home becomes a safe haven from the external racially hostile environment. Public  interventions that are meant to project victims of violence, for Black communities involve the permanent removal of Black children from Black homes and in cases where clients are fleeing military states and war torn countries, the arrival of state sanctioned law enforcement in domestic affairs is synonymous with fatality and becomes another barrier to the accessing of services.

A discussion of Intimate partner violence that does not use race and racism as a lens through which to analyse a women’s experience with violence systems will not ensure affirmative public position and proposed strategies for the elimination of barriers too these services. The  threat and realty of violence has become inherent in our everyday lives and therefore should be part of our everyday work. We need to ensure that:

  • Screening of gender based violence should be conducted with all clients regardless of services sought or gender identity.
  • We need to advocate for social infrastructure that provides clients with choices when seeking safe secure services, that are free from racial bias and are culturally appropriate
  • We need to ensure that the interventions we bring into the lives of clients experiencing gender based violence do not undermine their sense of power, autonomy and control over their own lives.