Liberal policy on domestic violence ‘devastating’ for women in Canada

Shortly after they were elected in 2001, the Liberals cut support services for victims of domestic violence as part of a wide-ranging effort to reduce spending and lower taxes. In their second term in office they changed the focus of services, putting more money into programs such as counselling and less into groups demanding changes in the way the welfare system, the courts and the police respond to violence. This year they are spending almost twice as much as in 2001.

The Liberals can legitimately boast about their support for safe homes. But a room to escape violence is only a small part of a network of services with gaping holes that the Liberals have shown no interest in filling. Advocates for women’s rights say housing designated for women escaping violence is being used for the homeless. They fear the government in its third term may privatize the facilities, undermining the services.

“This period of time between 2002 and 2009 in the province of B.C. has been a devastating one for women,” said Shelagh Day, co-author of a report, Inaction and Non-compliance: British Columbia’s Approach to Women’s Inequality, submitted last fall to a United Nations committee on the elimination of discrimination against women. Ms. Day, a founder of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) and international advocate, was among six Canadians who last fall received the Governor-General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

“The Liberals have been on a course of policy decisions and cuts that had a very negative impact on women of this province,” Ms. Day said in an interview. “The Liberals won’t acknowledge it and the NDP are not openly fighting back.”

Government funding was eliminated for 35 of 69 community-based victim-services programs in 2002, according to the report submitted to the UN. The government began to reverse direction in 2005, with funding for 43 new outreach programs to counsel and assist women.

About $48-million will be spent this year on programs for women and children leaving violence, an increase of more than $20-million since 2001. The province currently has 63 transition houses, 27 safe homes and nine so-called second stage houses. Last year around 13,000 women and children took advantage of the transition-house program.

The government provides financing for community groups that support women fleeing violence and training programs to help health-care workers recognize signs of violence and sexual abuse. Policy changes have enabled women leaving abusive situations to receive immediate income assistance, waiving normal wait-times requiring a search for work and independent living.

The government record, though, is under a shadow. Ms. Day’s report to the UN cites the elimination of the provincial ministry dedicated to promoting women’s equality as evidence of the government’s determination to erase women’s issues from the public agenda. Additional setbacks listed in the report include granting more discretion to police and prosecutors on whether to arrest and charge those involved in domestic violence, restricting legal aid for family law except for situations involving domestic violence, and relying more on alternative programs such as counselling and mediation, which in some cases provide opportunities for further abuse.


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