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Gender-Based Violence Is An Epidemic. So Why Aren’t We Calling It That?

It's the first step toward taking effective, immediate action.
A group of women holding signs at a memorial for the December 6 massacre, used in a post on why gender-based violence is an epidemic. A scene from a memorial rally during the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women in Canada in Ottawa in 2011. On December 6, 1989, 14 young women were murdered at Montreal's École Polytechnique by a man who hated feminists. (Photograph: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick.)

Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam were murdered by a former partner in a single day in Renfrew County in 2015. Earlier this year, following an inquest into the murders, the Eastern Ontario community declared intimate partner violence an epidemic. Since then, more than 70 Canadian municipalities have followed suit. But what does this mean—and how might doing so help make life better for the 44 percent of Canadian women who will face emotional, mental or physical abuse from a partner in their lifetimes?

Epidemic declarations, particularly at the municipal level, have a long history. The implied hope is that naming a threat to our health and well-being will spark action to eliminate it.

Medieval plagues prompted city-state sanitary cordons, quarantines and other practical efforts to block and contain illness. Better hygiene practices, clean water, sewage infrastructure and delivery of vaccinations and antibiotics emerged over the years as local disease control measures.

In modern times, epidemics are declared for bacteria and viruses—but the term is also used to describe public health crises: loneliness, suicide, disconnection, overdose.

So why not intimate partner violence?

A Canadian woman or girl is killed by violence every 48 hours. Young women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, trans women, non-binary people and women who are unhoused are more likely to experience it. Two-thirds of people in Canada know a woman who has been abused, and abuse is largely underreported. Those victimized are often not safe enough to tell anyone what they’re going through.

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I strongly believe that naming abuse an epidemic has the potential to trigger investments and transformation like we’ve never before seen in this country.

The most effective public health measures arise from strong partnerships among cities, provinces and territories, and the federal government. In declaring abuse an epidemic, all levels of government would need to make significant investments in measures to ease the crisis.

We need funding for crisis lines and shelters to meet the large scope of need. We need healthy relationship education for children. We need well-equipped human resource departments and skilled workplace leaders to end workplace sexual harassment and help workers dealing with domestic abuse. We need efforts to close gender pay gaps and boost economic security so no one gets trapped in an abusive home.

Gender-based violence and the trauma it inflicts on survivors and their loved ones won’t end with a narrow focus on police, prosecution and prison.

Declaring an abuse epidemic can be the first step toward taking effective, immediate action. Jurisdictions cannot ignore the blight of gendered violence altogether, which the United Nations has said may be the “longest, deadliest pandemic” in the world.

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But not everyone is on board. Earlier this year, the province of Ontario rejected the Renfrew County inquest's proposal to declare abuse an epidemic, saying intimate partner violence is not “an infectious or communicable disease.”

Communicability is a matter of interpretation. Gender-based violence is replicated again and again in our communities, learned and relearned across generations, yet it’s entirely preventable. No one has to choose to inflict violence. Look at the ways we teach boys toxic masculinity, blame victims and excuse perpetrators, and consider violence a normal part of being a woman, girl or 2SLGBTQIA+ person. An epidemiologic lens on this phenomenon may very well strengthen our case to bring abuse rates down.

Which raises another question: How would we know an abuse epidemic is over?

Determining the end of the COVID-19 pandemic has been subject to debate and disagreement, and figuring out what the end to gender-based violence looks like may get messy, too.

Let’s think about what a declaration could achieve in terms of Indigenous women, women with disabilities, young women—everyone at highest risk. If interventions to end abuse were successful, we should at least expect them to report less fear and targeting simply because of who they are.

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We’re in the early days of what we need to do, and we all have a role to play. Reach out to your government representatives to put this on their radar. Ask your employer how they’re helping workers at risk. And learn the skills to offer your care and support to abuse survivors in your life.

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