Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

The Plague of Violence against Women


The Ghomeshi case is a most notorious instance of male violence against women, because of the people involved: celebrities. Some say that Canadians are obsessed with it because of a prurient interest in the sex. Perhaps, but from my considerable experience corresponding with Canadians about this, I know their interest is rooted in something else: familiarity.

Almost every woman alive knows what it means to be afraid of a man, whether it’s a stranger on a dark street or an intimate in her bed. They know already that we live in a society which is simply, blandly, appallingly tolerant of this. They know already that they are not to blame – they know who is to blame. The problem is, the people who ARE to blame, don’t know it. Or don’t care.

We have to make them care. We need legal and social instruments which call out this behaviour by men. We must shame them. We must blame them. We must demand that men – all men, the brutes and the non-brutes – acknowledge that their physical power, their behaviours, their economic influence – places women all too often in a state of vulnerability or subjugation.

The criminal law is not the way to do it. Not the only way, at least.

It should be difficult to convict someone of a crime, to imprison him, to take his livelihood and to tar him, for life, as a transgressor of our Criminal Code. It should be difficult, and it is. And so Jian Ghomeshi has been acquitted.

To say that “the court got it wrong” would itself be wrong – the best measure of what the law dictates, is what a judge decides. The only thing that a good judge needs is a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred. That is all it takes to acquit a man, to set him free again. A reasonable doubt.

It is easy – lazy, really – to blame the defence lawyers for doing a good job, or to castigate the Crowns for losing, or curse the judge or wish that we could hang a defendant for less. If the only lesson we take from the Ghomeshi case is that the law is an ass, we will have learned nothing. And there is much to learn.

Because we have a terrible problem, and it ain’t Jian Ghomeshi and it ain’t “the justice system.” The problem is that as hard as it is imprison a violent man, it is easy to imprison a woman in fear of his violence. As hard as it is to trap a violent man for life, it is so easy for him to trap a woman. For life. Often, to the death.

The problem of male violence against women is timeless, durable and universal. It is so “normal” that we are only now coming to recognize it for what it is. A disease. A public health scourge. And we aren’t doing much about that public health scourge.

Canada has about thirty million people – one tenth that of the United States. It has consistently lower levels of violent crime than many other societies. It is one of the world’s most “woman-friendly” places, in terms of rights, opportunities and personal security. But look at some of the facts about the public health menace of violence against women:

• One in six women are subjected to physical or sexual violence by the age of 16. Most of us know someone – or are someone – in that group.
• Forty thousand arrests happen in cases of domestic violence each year, but that may represent only 10% of the cases.
• Every six days, a woman dies at the hands of her male partner.
• About 3,300 women A DAY are taking refuge in a shelter (who can blame them?)
• The psychological damage inflicted on all concerned, is beyond measure.

Male – mostly domestic – violence makes thousands of women sick and kills hundreds every year. If there were ANY other public health problem inflicting this kind of trauma on Canadians, our governments would be besieged with demands to deal with it.

But we don’t treat it like a public health issue. We think of it as “private” until it is so terrible that it becomes “public” in the most fearsome way – through murder, and perhaps, the criminal courts. The courts which are designed only to react to offences after the fact, through a criminal law which is almost perfect for deterring the reporting or resolution of cases of this kind.

For violence against women, the courts are for the most part like Civil War battlefield hospitals: whatever gets injured, gets amputated. Bite hard on this, dear, it’s going to hurt.

Contrast this with how Canadian legislatures and courts deal with another public health issue: workplace safety (I know something about this – it is part of my law practice and I teach it at a law school). If someone is endangered at work, they have instant recourse to internal or government intervention. If someone is threatened at work, it is a provincial offence. An inspector can come, issue orders, shut down a workplace or more, if an unsafe condition is found. Provincial enforcement is pretty rigorous – there are hundreds of government officers in Ontario alone, specializing in this. And while the system is hardly perfect, the incidence of injury, death and disease in Canadian workplaces has plummeted in the last few decades.

We may need changes to our criminal law, which only the Parliament of Canada can effect. But what we really need, at the provincial level, are public health regulations and interventions to take aggressive pre-emptive action to reduce the incidence of violence against women.

This sounds alien and strange: a government agency? A women’s safety department? What will they do – come into our houses, put ankle bracelets on our husbands? Make them attend classes, or fine them, or forbid them from entering the house? Don’t the police do all that?

Nope, they don’t. They can’t or won’t sink those kinds of resources into protecting women from male violence, and they’re not equipped for it. We need people who are equipped with the knowledge, tools and power to take real action on this.

What does that mean in real terms? I’m not sure. There is a vast literature on male violence against women. The clues that it is happening are not hard to find. The tools to deal with it are not, really, all that hard to imagine or to try out. Not being a public health expert, the whole vast array of methods available are at present, outside my grasp. But those methods exist.

This all sounds like a drastic intervention into private life. Sure, but domestic violence only HAPPENS in private. Its effects are public, pervasive and poisonous. And our society can be pretty invasive and strict about private behaviours which create public health havoc:

• Smoking is pretty personal – it happens in your mouth and lungs. We ban it everywhere now, and we paint every packet of cigarettes with skulls and terrible warnings. Suitably so.

• AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases make people ill or kill them, every year. But compare the statistics to what we know about violence against women. Is there some reason we don’t see them the same way?

• Sugary drinks rot your teeth, we are told. They make you fat. We know that one can of pop won’t kill you, but too many could give you diabetes and a host of other illnesses. Some American cities have ordinances against soda pop, to slow down the mass consumption of them. Like cigarettes. One smoke ain’t gonna kill ya. But we know that one cigarette is usually the start, not the end, of the problem.

• Taking a drink of alcohol is a totally personal, intimate physical act. It is a social norm. But pair that with operating a car and you become a public menace. Drunk driving is now viewed not only as criminal, but also as a provincial offence, and even more important, as an offence against decency. And it all starts with just one drink. So what do we do? We don’t have the drink, or we don’t get in the car.

So too with male violence. A man shouts at his girlfriend. He twists her arm. He clenches his fist, then unclenches it. She shivers in fear. She loves him, what is wrong? And then – boom – it has only just begun.

How about a bylaw making it illegal to shout at your wife? Sounds crazy right? But ask yourself: which is more likely to injure or kill a woman – a can of Coke, or her husband?

This will offend some people: violence against women is more serious than soda pop or smoking. Yes, it is. The criminal law should make it easier, not harder, for women to report and for public justice to be done. Yes, that is true. Let’s improve the criminal law.

But a criminal court will never stop a man from swinging his fist for the first time. It will never prevent a girl from being abused by her boyfriend, or by a stranger, or by her husband – or her father, for that matter. It will not teach her how to protect herself and worse, it will not teach any man to recognize his own bad behaviour.

That’s because no man thinks he is a criminal. Not even the criminals think it – they just think they were unlucky, or caught.  So let’s add a layer of regulatory interest and attention to this. Let’s go at it, hard – very hard – with the vast array of public health and safety techniques which have so effectively reduced workplace injury, smoking, drunk driving, and so on.

I would rather pass a local bylaw and give men tickets for their mildest offences, than see another wife buried in her grave. Wouldn’t you?

Most men and many women, I expect, would object to be “sanctioned” or ticketed for their behaviours. They would resent being “instructed” on how to behave. After all, it’s not ME who is shouting, punching or murdering. Why should it be ME who has to listen to all this, or be lectured, or learn a damned thing?

Well, friends, because it IS you. Either by what you do, or don’t do, say or don’t say, know or don’t know, you are somehow part of the social fabric that stretches so far to tolerate the violent oppression of our women. It’s YOU because you don’t see that it’s you. It’s you because you don’t know enough, yet. Just like I don’t know enough yet.

And so we must tolerate personal inconveniences and insults, to manage larger and more important issues. If we can make people wear helmets when they ride motorcycles, we can come up with ways to teach men how not to give in to their rage, their weakness, their sense of powerlessness.

We can teach men to respect themselves and then, respect their daughters, sisters, girlfriends and wives. And to respect strangers. If we can put cushions under playground swings, we can protect women from being terrorized, beaten or killed by the men they live with or know.

And ladies and gentlemen, if you are absolutely certain you have nothing to do with this public health problem, I can assure you that you have everything to do with it.

Sure, violence against women is a crime. If we can convict someone of it. But it isn’t only a crime, it’s a scourge. It’s a disease. The time is long, long, long past due that we understand that, that we think anew and that we act anew, to cleanse ourselves of this plague.


2 comments on “The Plague of Violence against Women

  1. markagibsoncan
    February 9, 2018

    David, is it true that in Ontario, a prosecutor is not allowed to see the police report in the case of a complaint of domestic violence? If so, it would seem like a terrible affront to justice. Thank you for a good push in a fascinating direction for a terrible and real problem.


  2. Pingback: Follow the Blood Money | Think Anew, Act Anew

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This entry was posted on March 26, 2016 by in The Rights of Women, Violence against Women.
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