The term woman abuse refers to various forms of violence, abuse, mistreatment and neglect that women experience in their intimate, kin or dependent relationships. These include current, dissolving or past relationships with husbands, common-law partners, lovers, dating partners, family members and caregivers.
Many terms have been used to describe the abuse of women within relationships, including wife abuse, wife assault, wife battering, spouse abuse, and partner abuse. Recently, activists within the shelter movement have begun to use the more inclusive term woman abuse or woman battering.Footnote 1 Some authors use the term woman abuse to refer to various forms of violence against women, including wife abuse, premarital woman abuse, rape and sexual assault.Footnote 2 The term intimate partner violence has also been used.Footnote 3 Some terms do not specify whether the abuser is a man or a woman. In fact, although a woman may be abused by another woman, it is generally accepted by front-line workers that she is most likely to be abused by a man.Footnote 4
Any woman—regardless of her age, race, ethnicity, education, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, occupation, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, or personality—may experience abuse. A woman may be at risk of abuse at virtually any point in her life—from childhood to old age. Girl children who are abused or who witness abuse against their mothers may be particularly vulnerable to being abused as they grow into young women. Women who are in their childbearing years may experience abuse that is linked to, and may have consequences for, their reproductive health. As women grow older, they may continue to be abused, either in their homes or in other residential settings.
Women who are abused may experience more than one type of aggression. Typically, abusive partners attempt to dominate and control by engaging in actions that threaten or harm a woman's physical and emotional well-being, sexuality, social life, parenting ability, financial situation, possessions or spiritual life.Footnote 5 A woman may experience a single episode of abuse, or she may endure a pattern of abuse over many years.
Physical abuse may include assaults involving beating, burning, slapping, choking, kicking, pushing, biting or a weapon. It may also include physical neglect through denial of food or medication, inappropriate personal or medical care, rough handling, or confinement. Physical abuse and neglect can result in serious injuries or death. Assault is against the law in Canada.
Emotional or psychological abuse may include constant yelling, screaming, name calling, insults, threats, humiliation or criticism, excessive jealousy or suspiciousness, threatening or harassing a woman (or her children, family members, friends or pets), isolating a woman from neighbours, friends or family, or depriving a woman of love and affection. For some women, the effects of emotional abuse may be worse than the consequences of physical violence.
Women who are emotionally abused are at high risk for experiencing physical violence.Footnote 6 Stalking or threatening another person (criminal harassment) and willfully destroying or damaging another person's property are against the law in Canada.
Sexual abuse may include rape (sexual assault), unwanted sexual touching, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, or forcing a woman to participate in any unwanted, unsafe, degrading or offensive sexual activity. Sexual abuse may also include denying or ridiculing a woman's sexuality or controlling her reproductive choices. The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) of girls has serious consequences for young adult women, especially during the childbearing years.Footnote 7 Sexual assault and sexual exploitation are against the law in Canada.
Economic or financial abuse may include preventing a woman from working, controlling her occupational choices, preventing her from achieving or maintaining financial independence, denying or controlling her access to financial resources, or exploiting her financially. Failing to provide the necessities of life to a spouse or dependent is against the law in Canada.
Spiritual abuse may include preventing a woman from participating in spiritual or religious practices, ridiculing her beliefs, or using spiritual beliefs to justify controlling her.
Every year, hundreds of women in Canada are seriously injured or killed as a result of physical violence inflicted on them by their partners. According to police reports for 1999, 523 women suffered major physical injuries or died at the hands of their husbands or common-law partners. This figure is five times higher than the number of men (100) who experienced major physical injuries or death at the hands of their spouse in the same time period.Footnote 8 Yet, research indicates that many cases of abuse are not reported to police.Footnote 9
Victim surveys directly ask people about their experiences of abuse. These surveys provide a fuller—albeit not completeFootnote 10—picture of the extent and nature of woman abuse. The 1993 Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS) was the first such survey to provide national information on women's experience of violence in Canada. Since then, the 1999 General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization asked almost 26,000 women and men in Canada about their experiences of violence at the hands of their current or previous spouses or common-law partners.Footnote 11 According to the 1999 GSS survey, 8 percent of women
and 7 percent of men experienced some type of violence—ranging from threats to sexual assault— in their intimate relationships during the five years covered by the survey.Footnote 12 The survey also found that the violence experienced by women tended to be more severe—and more often repeated—than the violence directed at men.
Compared with men, women were
Also, women experience a greater degree of certain types of emotional abuse.
Compared with men, women
Clearly, physical and emotional abuse is a common experience for women in Canada. Given the widespread nature of this problem, woman abuse is not a private concern for individuals and families—it is a serious and urgent societal issue.
There are many theories—and differences of opinion—about what causes woman abuse, but there is no single, definitive explanation. For many experts, however, the long-standing power imbalance between men and women in society continues to be a central factor. These experts link the mistreatment and abuse of women to the social and economic reality of women's lives—the web of discriminatory attitudes, values, behaviours, structures and institutions that undermine, isolate and marginalize women.Footnote 15
There is growing understanding of how the effects of dislocation,Footnote 16 colonization,Footnote 17 racism,Footnote 18 homophobia,Footnote 19 poverty,Footnote 20 and isolationFootnote 21 further increase women's vulnerability to abuse.
Regardless of the cause, the use of violence is unacceptable in any circumstance. Everyone has a responsibility to end violence and learn how to develop healthy relationships.
Any woman, regardless of her life circumstances, may experience abuse. But statistics have identified factors that can increase, either directly or indirectly, a woman's vulnerability to being abused in her relationship. These risk factors are not necessarily direct causes of abuse, but they are associated with violence, and increase the likelihood of violence.Footnote 22 Multiple factors create an even higher risk. Risk factor information highlights how specific circumstances in women's lives can increase their vulnerability to abuse.
Some of the factors that increase a woman's vulnerability to abuse include being young (18-24), elderly (65 or older), disabled or Aboriginal. The risk is also increased when a woman was victimized in childhood or exposed to violence against her mother. Pregnancy is also a risk factor for being abused.Footnote 23
Women younger than 25 years of age are at higher risk than other women of experiencing violence in their relationships.Footnote 24 These women are also at higher risk than others of being killed by their current or ex-husbands or common-law partners.Footnote 25
Women with disabilities are estimated to be 1.5 to 10 times more likely to be abused than are non-disabled women, depending on whether or not they live in a community or institutional setting.Footnote 26 Abuse against women with disabilities includes a wide range of behaviours that women who are not disabled may not experience. For example, women with disabilities often have to rely on others to help them with mobility, toileting, eating, bathing or other daily tasks. This dependence requires quite intimate relationships with a wide range of others, including partners, caregivers, health professionals, transportation providers and other family members. Dependence on a large network of relationships increases the chances that a woman who is disabled will experience abuse.Footnote 27
Research has shown that First Nations and Inuit women experience very high rates of violence. In one Ontario study, 8 out of 10 Aboriginal women had experienced violence in their relation-
ships. Of these, 87 percent were physically injured, and 57 percent were sexually abused.Footnote 28 An estimated 75 to 90 percent of women in some northern Aboriginal communities have been physically abused.Footnote 29
Relationship factors may also increase a woman's vulnerability to abuse. For example, she is more likely to experience abuse if her partner is young (18-24),Footnote 30 is unemployed (long term),Footnote 30 has little formal education,Footnote 30 is a heavy drinker,Footnote 31 or was exposed to violence against his mother.Footnote 32 Women in common-law relationships are at higher risk of abuse than women who are married.Footnote 33 The presence of weapons in the home is associated with lethal violence.Footnote 34 When a woman either threatens to leave or leaves her partner she faces an increased risk of being further victimized or even killed.Footnote 35 Her desire to leave the relationship may pose a serious challenge to her partner's desire for control, and the partner may respond by intensifying the violence or murdering her.
For Abused Women
Being abused may undermine virtually every aspect of a woman's life—her physical and mental health (see Health Consequences of Woman Abuse, below), her ability to work, her relationships with children, family members and friends, her self-efficacy and her fundamental sense of self-worth. Sometimes her attempts to cope with abuse, for example, through the use of drugs or alcohol, create additional problems. In some cases, women are eventually killed by their abusive partners.
Physical health effects include broken bones, bruises, burns, cuts, stabs and firearm wounds, abrasions, bites, lacerations, sprains, concussions, skull fractures, scarring, perforated eardrums, detached retina, injuries to the voice box, chipped or lost teeth, hair loss, chronic gastro-intestinal pain, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic neck, back or other musculoskeletal pain, chronic headache, hypertension, palpitations, hyperventilation, and substance abuse problems. Pregnant women who are abused experience direct and indirect impacts, which can result in serious complications for the mother, fetus and, later, infant.Footnote 37
Sexual health effects include sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, chronic pelvic, genital or uterine pain, chronic vaginal or urinary infection, bruising or tearing of the vagina or anus, frequent pregnancy (when unwanted or contraindicated), infertility or early hysterectomy, and sexually addictive behaviour. There are also physical and psychological consequences of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation.Footnote 38
Psychological effects include low self-esteem, self-degradation, self-abuse, difficulty with relationships, acute anxiety, frequent crying, unusual or pronounced fear responses, uncontrolled or rapid anger responses, chronic stress, phobias, flashbacks, insomnia, sleep disturbances, nightmares, lack of appropriate boundaries, arrested development, passivity, memory loss, loss of concentration and productivity.
Psychiatric effects include depression, suicidal thoughts, dissociation, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, eating disorders, adjustment disorder with depressed mood, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Although abuse can have devastating effects on women, the impacts are often not seen or identified. Many professionals and service providers who work with women now recognize that they have a responsibility to educate themselves about potential indicators of abuse, and to routinely ask all women about their experiences of abuse.
The impacts of abuse extend well beyond women, to others.
The 1999 General Social Survey found that children heard or witnessed a parent being assaulted in approximately 37 percent (461,000) of spousal violence cases in the five-year period measured by the survey. Children were more likely to be exposed to violence against their mothers than against their fathers, and were most likely to witness or hear serious assaults on their mothers.Footnote 39 Children who are exposed to violence against their mothers—even infants and very young children—may be seriously affected. Exposure to violence against their mothers can undermine children's emotional development, and cause serious behaviour problems and difficulties in school.Footnote 40 The emotional and behavioural effects may be similar to those experienced by children who are themselves being physically abused.Footnote 41
Professionals note that men who abuse their partners may experience anger, denial, emotional problems, rejection and isolation. Factors such as abuse during childhood, witnessing abuse as children,Footnote 42 the use of drugs or alcohol, involvement in the criminal justice system or other negative experiences, compound the abuse. Abusers are responsible for their behaviour, and for the devastating effects it has on their partners and children. Abusers are also responsible for the harm they do to themselves. Some abusive partners eventually kill their partners and children and commit suicide.
Research has shown that, each year, woman abuse costs billions of dollars in
Canada. The first-ever estimate of the costs associated with woman abuse (and some other forms of violence against women) came to at least $4.2 billion per year in social services, education, criminal justice, labour, employment, health and medical costs.Footnote 43
Woman abuse—and all forms of gender-based violence—has wide-ranging consequences for women's health and for the health system.Footnote 44 The health-related costs of woman abuse have been estimated at more than $1.5 billion per year. This includes the costs of immediate medical attention and dental treatment, lost time at work (paid and unpaid), long-term medical treatment, psychiatric hospital stays (all types), use of transition homes and crisis centres, and other prevention and treatment initiatives.Footnote 45
As the study "Selected Estimates of the Costs of Violence Against Women" indicates, these estimates provide important information, but they are only part of the picture.Footnote 46 There are many costs related to woman abuse that have yet to be calculated.
A woman who is being abused must make many, often very difficult, decisions about how best to protect herself, her children and others who are important in her life.
She must determine when and where it is safe to tell someone she is being abused. She must decide when and where to seek support, and how best to use whatever services and supports are available to her to increase her safety and improve her situation.
Meanwhile, her options for obtaining support and ending the abuse are frequently limited by her personal and social circumstances. For some groups of women in Canada—including First Nations and Inuit women, immigrant and refugee women, women with disabilities, women in rural and remote communities, lesbian women and others—experiences of discrimination, racism, poverty, and social and geographic isolation create additional barriers. These women often must deal not only with the consequences of being abused but also with the effects of their marginalized position in society, and the reality of limited services.
Some of the barriers that a woman may encounter include the following:Footnote 47
was abused herself. She may have strong beliefs about the importance of keeping her relationship and family together, which may prevent her from leaving. She may not want to take her children away from their other parent or their home. She may be pressured by family, friends or others in the community to stay with the abuser. She may feel ashamed of her abuser and of herself.
It may take police or emergency personnel a long time to respond in a rural or remote setting. When the woman decides to leave, she may not have any transportation, or any money to pay for transportation. In small communities, when services are available locally, they may be delivered by people she knows, and it may be difficult to ensure confidentiality.
A woman with a disability may not have access to transportation to leave an abusive situation or get to a shelter. Shelters and other services in her community may not be accessible. For example, there may not be anyone who understands sign language.
A First Nations or Inuit woman, or a woman who is an immigrant or refugee, may not have access to services and supports that are familiar with or appropriately sensitive to her culture. She may suspect racist or discriminatory attitudes on the part of service providers.
A lesbian woman may find that support services are designed for heterosexual women only. Service providers may not recognize that abuse occurs in lesbian relationships.
The best way to prevent and respond to abuse is by collaborating with other people in your community. Hundreds of community, volunteer and professional organizations—in communities all across Canada—are working together to prevent and respond to woman abuse. Find out who is involved in addressing woman abuse in your community, and learn about what is being done in your community and elsewhere. Become a volunteer, or make a contribution to support these efforts.
As primary caregivers, health care providers are well positioned to prevent and respond to woman abuse. They play a critical role in an integrated, multidis-ciplinary and intersectoral response to this issue. There is growing recognition of the health consequences of woman abuse, and, as a result, many initiatives are under way to inform health care providers about how to identify, screen, assess and support women who have been abused. Some examples of these initiatives include the development of protocols, guidelines, screening tools, risk assessment tools, education and training resources, and coordination mechanisms, among others. As efforts to strengthen the health care system result in new models of care, it is important that health care providers continue to be supported in their efforts to prevent and respond to woman abuse.
Given the extent of woman abuse in Canada, there is a good chance that someone you know—either personally or professionally—is experiencing abuse, even if you don't suspect it. You should be prepared to deal with this issue and offer support in ways that will not further endanger a woman or her children.
A woman who is being abused may not feel safe telling anyone about what is happening to her. When you learn to recognize the signs of abuse, you can let her know that she is not alone, and that you are willing to listen to her and believe her. Although there is no single definitive indicator that a woman is being abused, you can learn about the physical, emotional or behavioural indicators. For example, she may have unexplained injuries or chronic health problems. She may show signs of fear, anxiety or depression. She may use substances to cope. Her partner's behaviour can also be a sign: her partner may prevent or limit her contact with others, or try to control her in other ways.
If you decide to raise the issue, make sure you ask her about abuse in private. Never ask her in front of anyone else,
including her partner or children. All efforts must attempt to ensure her safety.
Keep in mind that your ability to provide support will depend on your own experiences, values and attitudes. If you don't feel comfortable dealing with the issue of abuse, try to understand why. You may need more knowledge about the issue and the services and supports available in your community, or you may need support for your own experiences of abuse. If you need more information about abuse, contact the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence or consult the recommended resources (identified on the following pages). You can find out about the services and supports that are available in your community by looking in the front section of your local telephone directory, or by contacting the nearest women's shelter.
If you do not feel in a position to provide support, you should be ready to refer a woman to someone else who can help her.
If you are a service provider working in the community, health, social service, education or justice sphere, you should familiarize yourself with the many tools that are available to you. There are growing numbers of professional training programs, protocols and other resources that address screening, risk assessment, documentation, referrals, follow-up support, and other areas of professional responsibility.
When a woman tells you she is being abused, you should let her know that you believe her, and make it clear that no one deserves to be abused.
Her immediate safety is the most important concern. Ask her what she needs to be safe. If she feels she is in immediate danger, offer to call the police or the nearest women's shelter. If she prefers, give her the shelter's telephone number so she can call (anonymously if she wishes to) for support.
A woman who is being abused has to make many, often extremely difficult, decisions. You can help her explore her options by providing information about services and supports,Footnote 50 and helping her develop a safety plan for herself and her children.Footnote 51
As a professional, you should be prepared to document the abuse or your concerns thoroughly.
No matter what the woman decides to do—or not do—about the abuse, it is important to continue to be supportive. It is essential to recognize and respect the complexity of her situation. For most people, the process of change involves many stages, and may be difficult and lengthy. Knowing that someone believes in her strengths and is willing to help her
can make an important difference in the long term.
If you are being abused or were abused in the past you are not alone. You can call and ask for support from the following places in your community (the telephone numbers should be listed in the front of your local telephone book):
If you are abusing your partner, you need to take responsibility for your behaviour and ask for help to make changes. Contact one of the organizations listed in the section above and ask for assistance.
To obtain information and resource materials on woman abuse, contact:
The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence Family Violence Prevention Unit Healthy Communities Division Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) Health Canada Address Locator: 1907D
9th Floor, Jeanne Mance Building Tunney's Pasture Ottawa, Ontario K1A 1B4 CANADA
Telephone 1-800-267-1291 or (1 800 267-1291)
Fax: (613) 941-8930 FaxLink: 1-888-267-1233 or (613) 941-7285
TTY: 1-800-465-7735 or (613) 952-6396
Web site: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/nc-cn E-mail: email@example.com
There are many web sites that deal with woman abuse and related topics. The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence web site contains more information and has numerous links to other relevant sites.
Alliance of Five Research Centres on Violence. Violence Prevention and The Girl Child: Final Report. Research funded by Status of Women Canada. 1999.
Biesenthal, Lorri, Lynne Dee Sproule, Mary Nelder, Susan Golton, Donna Mann, Denise Podovinnikoff, Inge Roosendaal, Shellie Warman and Donna Lunn, in cooperation with Community Abuse Programs of Rural Ontario.
Research Report: the Ontario Rural Woman Abuse Study (ORWAS). Ottawa: Department of Justice Canada, 2000.
Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.
Family Violence in Canada, A Statistical Profile, 2000. Ottawa: Statistics Canada; Cat. No. 85-224-XPE, 2000.
Chesley, Laurie, Donna MacAulay, and Janice Ristock. Abuse in Lesbian Relationships: Information and Resources. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1998.
Duffy, Ann and Julianne Momirov.
Family Violence: A Canadian
Introduction. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., 1997.
Family Violence Prevention Unit.
A Handbook Dealing with Woman Abuse and the Canadian Criminal Justice System: Guidelines for Physicians.
Ottawa: Health Canada; Cat. No. H72-21-164-1998E (1999).
Gurr, Jane, Louise Mailloux, Dianne Kinnon and Suzanne Doerge. Breaking the Links Between Poverty and Violence Against Women. Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services Canada, 1996.
Hotch, D. et al. Domestic Violence Intervention by Emergency Department Staff. Vancouver: Domestic Violence Program, Department of Emergency Medicine, Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre and the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, 1995.
Jamieson, Beals, Lalonde & Associates, Inc. A Handbook for Health and Social Service Professionals Responding to Abuse During Pregnancy. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1999.
Johnson, Holly. Dangerous Domains: Violence Against Women in Canada. Toronto: Nelson, 1996.
Johnson, Sara L. and Brian A. Grant.
Review of Issues Associated with Serious Spouse Abuse Among Federally Sentenced Male Offenders (Ottawa: Correctional Service of Canada, 1999)
Leventhal, Beth and Sandra E. Lundy, eds. Same-Sex Domestic Violence: Strategies for Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999.
National Crime Prevention Centre.
Personal Security Issues Concerning Women and Girls. Ottawa: National Crime Prevention Centre, n.d.
Sudermann, Marlies and Peter Jaffe. A Handbook for Health and Social Service Providers and Educators on Children Exposed to Woman Abuse/Family Violence. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1999.
The Task Force on the Health Effects of Woman Abuse. Task Force on the Health Effects of Woman Abuse: Final Report. London: Middlesex-London Health Unit, 2000.
Warshaw, Carole and Anne Ganley.
Improving the Health Care Response to Domestic Violence: A Resource Manual for Health Care Providers. San Francisco: Family Violence Prevention Fund, 1995.
P.G. Jaffe, D.A. Wolfe, S.K. Wilson and M. Sluscarzck, "Similarities in Behaviour and Social Maladjustment Among Child Victims and Witnesses to Family Violence," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 56 (1985): 142-146, as cited in Marlies Sudermann, Peter Jaffe and Lynn Watson, Wife Abuse -- The Impact on Children: Information from the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (Ottawa: Health Canada, 1996): 3.
Irene Ens, Abuse of Older Adults in Institutions: Information from the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (Ottawa: Health Canada, 2000).
Laura Chesley, Donna MacAulay, Janice Ristock and Cynthia Stewart,
Abuse in Lesbian Relationships: Information and Resources (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 1998).
Beth Leventhal and Sandra E. Lundy (Editors) Same-Sex Domestic Violence: Strategies for Change (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 1999). Barbara Anello, Report Re: Inter-Sectoral Workshop on Violence Against Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women and Access to the Justice System, November 27, 1998, North Bay, Ontario. Report prepared for the DAWN Ontario Board. [Online]. [Accessed November 2000]. Available on Internet: <http://www.dawn.thot.net workshop.html>. Jamieson, Beals, Lalonde & Associates, Inc., A Handbook for Health and Social Service Professionals Responding to Abuse During Pregnancy (Ottawa: Health Canada, 1999). Lorri Biesenthal, Lynne Dee Sproule, Mary Nelder, Susan Golton, Donna Mann, Denise Podovinnikoff, Inge Roosendaal, Shellie Warman and Donna Lunn, Research Report: the Ontario Rural Woman Abuse Study
(ORWAS) (Ottawa: Department of Justice, 2000). Alliance of Five Research Centres on Violence,
Violence Prevention and the Girl Child: Final Report. Research funded by Status of Women Canada, 1999.
This document was prepared by Liz Hart and Wanda Jamieson of Jamieson, Beals, Lalonde & Associates, Inc. The contributions of the following individuals are gratefully acknowledged: Katalin Kennedy, Lynn Austin and Gaby Vieira, Health Canada, and Marianne Fizet, Kimmon Crosier and Sonja Harrington, Jamieson, Beals, Lalonde & Associates, Inc.
National Clearinghouse on Family Violence
Family Violence Prevention Unit Healthy Communities Division Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) Centre for Healthy Human Development Health Canada Address Locator: 1907D
9th Floor, Jeanne Mance Bldg., Tunney's Pasture Ottawa, Ontario K1A 1B4, Canada
Telephone: 1-800-267-1291 or (1 800 267-1291)
Fax: (613) 941-8930 Faxlink: 1-888-267-1233 or (613) 941-7285
TTY: 1-800-465-7735 or (613) 952-6396 Web site: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/nc-cn
This publication can be made available in alternative formats upon request.
Ce feuillet de renseignements est également disponible en français sous le titre La violence faite aux femmes.
March 1995 (Wife Abuse)
October 2001 (revised)
The opinions expressed in this fact sheet are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Health Canada.
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Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2002.