On July 24, Raja Ghazi, eight months pregnant, was stabbed in her home in Montreal. Her partner, Sofiane Ghazi, 37, allegedly stabbed Ghazi multiple times. Raja survived the attack, but her baby, delivered by emergency C-section, died in hospital a few hours after birth. Montreal police had been called to her home a few hours before the incident, and the officers said that even though they had urged her to leave at that time, the woman didn’t want to leave the home.

According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, every six days in Canada a woman is killed by her partner. Why do women stay in abusive relationships? As documented by the World Health Organization, women who experience violence from their male partners frequently cannot leave home, for many reasons. They might fear more violence toward them or their children if they leave, they might be financially and emotionally dependent on the men, and/or they can’t find the services they need to help them leave an abusive relationship.

Gender-based violence — violence against a person based on their gender, gender expression, gender identity or perceived gender — affects certain groups more than it does others. The March 2017 report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women identifies Indigenous women, women living in the territories and in remote areas, women with disabilities and women who are immigrants or refugees as groups that are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence. People who self-identify as homosexual or bisexual and transgender people are also more likely to face violence because of their gender.

Some immigrant and refugee women begin experiencing violence from their male partners only after they arrive in Canada. Research shows that being dependent on the men who have sponsored them, being fearful of deportation or jeopardizing their status in Canada and stress related to not finding work, losing work, learning a new language and adjusting to a new life can increase immigrant women’s vulnerability to violence from male partners.

We don’t know about much about Raja, her status in Canada or whether she was employed or had any other family support. According to news reports, Sofiane arrived in Canada in 2012, worked in retail jobs and had a problem with drug addiction; the couple had two children and had earlier abandoned divorce proceedings.

We do know that some women are particularly vulnerable to abuse, both inside and outside their homes. There are serious short- and long-term consequences of gender-based violence such as physical injuries, reproductive health problems including abortions, stillbirths and newborn deaths (as in Raja’s case), and mental health effects such as depression, anxiety and suicides. And, through years of research, we also know some of the root causes of such abuse, and that they often act together, such as intergenerational trauma, racism or other types of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, immigration status or social class.

Canada announced It’s Time: Canada’s Strategy to Prevent and Address Gender-Based Violence in June. This strategy came two years after 2015, which was the date the United Nations, back in 2010, specified for all countries to have national action plans. It was announced many years after service providers, nongovernmental organizations, researchers and advocates recognized and showed the need for such a strategy.

But is it better late than never? Maybe not.

The government has committed $100.9 million over five years, and $20.7 million per year ongoing, and says it is taking a “whole-of-government approach” to addressing the issue with Status of Women Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Public Safety Canada, the Department of National Defence, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The majority of the funds are committed to Status of Women Canada, for a gender-based violence knowledge centre to support data collection, research and programming. Agencies that focus on preventing domestic violence and on assisting in newcomer settlement and employment and language training, under the Public Health Agency of Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC), received less priority in the strategy. IRCC was allocated $1.5 million over five years, or $300,000 per year, for its settlement program.

While it is important to better understand gender-based violence, provide shelters and other services to help people that are affected by it and develop a strong legal response in Canada, these approaches are not likely to help all women, especially women like Raja. They may not seek refuge in shelters, access legal aid or look for ways of immediately leaving an abusive relationship. They need solutions that can address the root causes of violence, such as unemployment, precarious work and deskilling, which create poverty and social isolation for immigrant women as well as men. These root causes reinforce the gender inequality that particularly affects women and make them more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

It is important to invest in research, to find ways to prevent domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. But with so little investment in immigrant and refugee issues over the next five years, it could be too little, too late for thousands of women like Raja and their born and unborn children.

Photo: Ottawa, Canada, October 25, 2012: Unidentified people hold a sign for the CFUW (Canadian Federation of University Women)  at a demonstration calling for a national plan to end violence against women on Parliament Hill. Shutterstock, by Paul McKinnon.

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Vathsala Illesinghe
Vathsala Illesinghe is a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar and PhD candidate in immigration and settlement policy studies at Ryerson University. She is a member of the Expert Advisory Panel of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA).  

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