I was chatting with a friend the other day and we were struck by the fact that we both know women, in our close circles, who have been or are currently in abusive relationships.
This shouldn’t have surprised us as much as it did.
Although some groups of people are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, it affects all segments of society.
And it’s especially prevalent in Saskatchewan.
According to a government report released last year, Saskatchewan has the highest rate of police-reported interpersonal and domestic violence in Canada. And according to Statistics Canada, the rate of police-reported family violence in our province is approximately double the Canadian average.
Given these stats, and the current climate of heightened attention to harassment and abuse primarily targeting women, I wanted to understand how we might all be more cognizant of this problem and constructive in our response to it.
So I decided to chat with Gwyn Tremblay, the Executive Director of SOFIA House, a Regina-based organization that provides comprehensive services to families who have experienced domestic abuse.
(“Comprehensive services” means they take a long-term, sustainable approach to helping victims break the cycles of abuse and re-integrate back into society, through programs that include counselling, education, jobs and more. The organization also aims to help children break out of the cycles of abuse and stay in school.)
Most people in the type of role Gwyn’s in have a social work or counselling background but Gwyn has an MBA, a business background, and a history of high-powered, corporate jobs.
Her motivation for making this vast career change not long ago?
Her experience trying to help a friend escape an abusive relationship.
She recalls, several years ago, getting a panicked phone call from her friend in the middle of the night. The friend was fleeing her home with her kids after a charged fight with her husband, who Gwyn knew to have a history of anger and violence.
“The wind was blowing, I could barely understand her – she was screaming,” she says.
Eventually Gwyn was able to track her friend down using an iPhone app and after realizing she was returning home, decided to meet her there.
“As I started walking up the driveway, she came running out of her house,” she recalls. “The door had been knocked down, the frame was gone and her husband came after her with a gun.”
Gwyn says that within seconds, the gun was pointed at her.
“I just kept walking. He chose to back down, thank God.”
After the incident she tried unsuccessfully to get her friend to leave her husband.
“That was my biggest mistake,” Gwyn says. “I didn’t know what being trauma-informed was back them. I tried to force her.”
The experience changed her, she says, which is why she jumped on this current opportunity, to try and make a difference for other people in her friend’s situation.
Gwyn helped me come up with a few ways we can all try to help.
1. Understand what domestic violence is
Many people assume that domestic violence refers to recurring physical abuse.
But that’s only one part of it. The term and concept of domestic violence covers a wide range of behaviours including physical, emotional and psychological abuse, as well as criminal harassment (such as stalking) and threats of harm. The term also refers to threats of physical violence.
Some people downplay the severity of verbal abuse but it’s just as significant as physical abuse, Gwyn says.
“Verbal abuse is where it starts. That’s usually the precursor to domestic abuse. That’s how they wear you down.”
2. Don’t stigmatize it
Like I mentioned above, domestic abuse doesn’t affect just one segment of the population.
It affects people of all education and income levels, all cultures and communities and both men and women.
However, some groups are more at risk than others.
According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, women aged 15-24 are at a much higher risk than women in higher age categories. Aboriginal women are much more likely to be victims of violent and fatal crimes than non-Aboriginal women. And while men can also be victims of domestic abuse, rates of reported abuse are significantly higher amongst women.
3. Understand how it impacts our communities
Even if you don’t know anyone personally affected by domestic violence, it still impacts you.
The Canadian Women’s Foundation estimates that Canadians spend about $7.4 million a year to deal with spousal violence.
But beyond financial impact, Gwyn says domestic abuse affects our communities in more qualitative ways.
“You’re only as good as your weakest member as a commnity,” she says. “At SOFIA House we often see people affected by domestic violence that could be contributing to our society and have lots of give.”
Gwyn gives one example to illustrate this. One of the current tenants of the house is an immigrant who was a doctor in her home country. Bolstered by the support she’s receiving from SOFIA House, she has been able to get her driver’s license, get her daughter into English classes, and has begun the process of obtaining her Canadian medical license.
“When we run these programs, it’s not just removing victims from violent situation,” Gwyn says. “It’s empowering them to be contributing members of society, be self-sustainable, and create bonds and relationships in the community.”
4. Support victims you know
When I was having the conversation that inspired this article, I was bemoaning the fact that I don’t know what to do for my friend in question.
So I asked Gwyn for guidance. She says it’s common that people don’t know what to do in these situations and so often choose to avoid it.
“When you have a friend who is being verbally abused, especially in public, people just don’t want to get involved – they feel like it’s none of their business,” she says.
But it’s important to show that you support them, she says.
“Sometimes that just means putting your hand on their leg or calling them the next day and asking if they want to talk. Just being their friend is probably the number one thing you can do for them, so that they know they have support.”
She also says it’s important to not get frustrated when you feel that victims aren’t making the right decisions.
“You have to look at situation,” Gwyn says. “When someone’s in trauma they don’t make the best decisions for themselves because cognizant thinking just does out the window. They’re in fight or flight mode and usually it’s fight mode so the best thing you can do is just be there with a level head.”
There are two situations where you need to take more action, Gwyn says.
First, if there is physical abuse, she recommends you call the police.
Second, if you feel you are helping enable the abuse and/or it’s impacting your wellbeing you have to consider your own health.
“Being there as a friend is one thing but if it gets to a point where if there’s no action, there’s not much you can do. If it’s hurting your psyche or self-esteem or the way you think about things that when you have to walk away.”
5. Help support SOFIA House!
Due to significant constraints on corporate sponsorship in recent years, SOFIA House is facing an approximate $70,000 deficit this year. And when deficits happen, the first thing to get cut is programs for women and children – which are critical to the success of the organization.
Gwyn is currently trying to use her business mind to come up with new and innovative ways to raise funds and there are some new and exciting projects on the go.
But in the meantime, she reminds people that every single dollar that comes in gets put to good use.
“People sometimes have the mindset that financial donations goes to administration or frivolous things. But they don’t – we still have to pay bills and fund our day-to-day operations.
She also likes to remind people that even small donations are hugely appreciated and go a long way.
“Let’s say you have a Tupperware party and put 5% towards a local charity – it doesn’t necessarily need to be us even – you may think it’s only $20 but that money is so important to our organization.”
Note: You are all invited to SOFIA House’s 30th anniversary April 28! They are planning a super cool party at the Italian Club in Regina, featuring magic, mystery and mind blowing fun! Learn more.
Learn more about SOFIA House at http://sofiahouse.ca/