Women isolated at home face risk of conjugal violence

By Avleen K Mokha

Late evening on April 18, a man began shooting civilians in northern Nova Scotia. This mass shooting was the deadliest in Canadian history, with at least 22 people dead, including one member of the Royal Canadian Armed Forces.

Investigation into the shooter’s motives showed that that the man was verbally and physically abusive to his long-term girlfriend. Before the shooter killed civilians, he assaulted his partner and forcibly restrained her. Nova Scotia police believe that the “significant assault” could have been a “catalyst” for the deadly chain of events.

The shooter’s partner fled to the woods to escape. She survived.

Slowing the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) means that women across Canada spend more time with abusive partners. They cannot flee their abusers easily.

Stress from external factors closure of schools or loss of unemployment can worsen abuse. Such stress can explain spikes in abuse, but do not justify the action of abusers.

For this reason, services continue for women facing violence at home during the coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency as an essential service.

Shield of Athena is one such organization. The Shield supports women in Montreal facing abuse at home. The organization has three points of service in Greater Montreal, including a shelter for women in Park Extension. Founding member and executive director Melpa Kamateros has led the Shield for the past 29 years. She elaborates on the realities of maintaining the Shield during the public health emergency.

Not always obvious

Physical assault is only one kind of conjugal violence. Conjugal violence occurs when two people are in a relationship and one person makes behavior such as threats, harassment, to physical blows. The person acting in such a way hopes to make sure that their partner does not leave the relationship.

“It is not always as obvious as a man hitting his partner.”

“It is not always as obvious as a man hitting his partner,” West Island Women’s Shelter says. “It will often be insidious: these women suffer insults, denigration and constant control by their partner.”

Need for housing

Quebec has about 100 shelters for women experiencing conjugal violence. Shelters give women a place to stay temporarily. Shield of Athena is one of a few shelters that accepts mothers with their children.

Women at Shield of Athena anywhere from one day from a day to 2 months. Last year, about half of the sheltered women stayed for 33 days.

“Of course, if we see that the woman doesn’t have money, doesn’t have a support system, then we will extend it to 3 months,” Kamateros said.

The shelter organizes activities for women that prepare women at the shelter to enter the job market. For example, women get help with resume-writing or making business cards.

“If you give women the information, it’s amazing what they do with it.”

“If you give women the information, it’s amazing what they do with it,” Kamateros said, sharing that a pre-employment seminar last year helped a sheltered woman become a caterer.

“It’s a presumption that women from ethnic communities don’t do anything with what’s given to them. They want to be able to work. They want to be independent.”

In addition, the shelter holds sessions for stress management, legal consultation and self-betterment.
“When women enter the shelter, they are not autonomous yet. Our purpose is to make them autonomous.”

Concerns for Park Extension

Women in Park Extension may be at risk for conjugal violence during the pandemic. In 2016, Montreal Police Services (SPVM) Department 33 published a report on violence between married partners. Park Extension ranked 5 out of 32 neighbourhoods in Greater Montreal.

Having money to leave your partner is a major concern for women in Park Extension. Almost 80% of residents rent where they live and almost 40% of renters put one-third or more of their income towards rent, according to statistics from the 2016 census.

Women in Park Extension who are immigrants face greater challenges because English and French may not be their language of origin. The language barrier can make it difficult for women to know about social and healthcare services available to them, making them isolated enough to unknowingly controlled by their partners.

Since the time the COVID-19 shutdown began in Quebec, Shield continues telephone consultations, and calls through videoconferencing. Much of the organization’s work lies in giving free consultation to women in the languages they are most comfortable

Kamateros says that last year, 1 in every 3 women at the Shield’s shelter spoke only the language of her culture. In this way, the organization uniquely caters to multi-ethnic women by offering services in 17 languages other than English and French.

Most women who call Shield of Athena don’t speak English or French. 1 in every 2 calls the shelter received on average last year was in a language other than English and French.

While a majority of women get referred to the Shelter, Kamateros says that women that consult the Shield’s services often pass on the information to other women in their language or religious communities that face similar situations. Women thinking of leaving their homes but hesitant about the next steps find answers through the Shield’s helplines.

Operating in a pandemic

Shield of Athena is one of 575 violence against women shelters across Canada that needs financial aid during the pandemic, and fast.

Volunteers receiving training to work for the Shield of Athena. Photo: Melpa Kamateros

Early April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that $40 million will be given to Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE). Up to $26 million of this amount should be divided among shelters for women fleeing violence but money can be slow to trickle down the system.

Kamateros said that since the federal government announced help, the Shield received $10,000. However, the shelter finds itself financially strained.

“If you are feeding people three times a day, and you have children in your shelter, you need baby formula and diapers – the money we got does not go that far,” Kamateros said.

“If you are feeding people three times a day, and you have children in your shelter, you need baby formula and diapers – The money we got does not go that far.”

“We can’t go pick up donations. We can’t have people dropping things off. That’s why we need money to cover the basics.”

The staff at the Shield includes social workers and language interpreters. Kamateros needed to hire another social worker in April, which means the organization will pay the surcharge of a new employee without the ability to rely on donations or fundraising like usual.

“At the community level, an organization has to rely on fundraising to stay afloat,” Kamateros said, adding that the health emergency directives order people to stay at home which makes it harder to mobilize financial help.

Help still available

Activities at Shield of Athena’s shelter continue. New women joining the shelter will be quarantined before they can interact with others.

Kamateros stresses that women suffering from conjugal violence are not necessarily homeless women. Though homeless women can and do experience violence, Shield of Athena focuses its services for women who have homes that are dangerous for them due to conjugal violence.

Dr Andreas Nikolis recently donated masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers to the shelter, which allows workers at the shelter to protect themselves.

Workers at the Shield of Athena during a general assembly. Photo: Melpa Kamateros

Call Shield of Athena’s Montreal office at 514-274-8117 or 1-877-274-8117. Dial their Multilingual Sexual Violence Referral and Help Lines at 514-270-2900 (Montreal) and 450-688-2117 (Laval). As always, dial 9-1-1 for assistance from the police.

A version of this article was published on May 1 for the PX News print issue. Click here to read the full issue.