A home is supposed to be a safe haven. But the reality for thousands of women and children in homes where emotional and physical violence pervade is fear, a feeling of going crazy or being trapped. For nearly 30 years, Family Counselling Centre of Cambridge and North Dumfries has been dedicated to promoting healing and hope to women, children and men through the creation of our Family Violence Program in 1984. In recognition of Violence against Women (VAW) awareness month, I’m delighted to share an interview with our VAW coordinator, Sabina Santili.
N: You’ve been involved with supporting survivors of violence for over 25 years. What keeps you motivated to continue to do this challenging work?
S: I’m passionate about the political and personal aspect of violence against women and children. The women survivors I’ve met over the years have taught me all about determination, perseverance and courage and yet many do not realize their inner strength. Whether I meet with a survivor individually or in a group setting, I walk away feeling in awe, honoured and hopeful.
N: What do you feel women who have experienced domestic abuse/violence struggle with the most?
S: Abused women have many struggles including: the “internalization of oppression”, or belief that they are inferior and to blame for the abuse. This belief stems from societal attitudes and beliefs which encourage violence against women. Many of these women grew up in abusive/violent homes and are dealing with the impacts of childhood trauma in addition to the experiences of isolation and low self esteem. Abused women face significant barriers to getting help and/or leaving an unhealthy relationship: financial, housing, lack of childcare and personal supports and a confusing legal and social service system to navigate.
Immigrant and refugee women may also experience emotional and physical abuse by members of their intimate partner’s extended family including being prevented from learning the new country’s language and threats of deportation. Often they face the lack of appropriate community services to meet their unique needs. Neighbours, Friends and Families provides information in several different languages on safety planning and risk factors of abuse.
N: Can you describe some of the myths you encounter around domestic violence?
S: The group provides women the opportunity to challenge many myths they have internalized by negative societal attitudes such as:
- Women provoke the violence, therefore they deserve to be abused.
- Men who abuse their partners are mentally ill.
- Alcohol causes a man to abuse his partner.
- Abused women could leave their abusive partner if they wanted to.
- Only poor women get beaten.
- It is a woman’s responsibility to make sure her partner is happy.
- Women should stay for the sake of the family.
N: What are the goals of the “Women Helping Women” group that you co-facilitate at the agency for women who have experienced domestic abuse and/or acted out violently in their relationships?
S: The inspiration behind the group is to provide the opportunity to connect with other women in a supportive and caring environment in order to:
- identify the causes of domestic abuse and violence and the impact of being abused
- to explore healthy self care strategies
- to address ideas of gender-role beliefs and differences
- explore strategies to manage emotions such as anger, guilt depression and shame
- learn about the correlation between healthy self and healthy relationship with others
- to support and encourage group members as they create a viable plan of action for making healthier choices in relationship situations
- learn how to trust oneself to create positive changes
N: The agency’s Partner Assault Response (PAR) Program for women was created in response to the increase in women being mandated by probation and parole or the courts for violence against their intimate partners. In 2009 the agency chose to combine our Female PAR Program with the Violence Against Women (VAW) group. What inspired the agency to make this significant change to the program?
S: There were three important motivators:
1) The majority of women in the Female PAR group self-reported as either being in abusive relationships or acting in self-defense at the time of the incident.
2) By being referred as a perpetrator their own experience of victimization was being discounted, which increased the risk of victim blaming.
3) Many of these women shared experiences of being traumatized in some way from their involvement with the criminal justice system.
N: What do female group members say they benefit most from this group?
S: Participants have reported many benefits including:
- being part of a supportive and nonjudgmental environment and realizing they are not alone
- the opportunity to name the abuse they experienced and learn the dynamics of power and control
- the invitation to reflect and take responsibility for their own reaction to the abuse
N: What are your hopes for the women whose lives you touch?
S: To connect with their strengths, with their authentic self and to feel empowered enough to believe they deserve to be listened to, respected and to live a life without violence.
Did you know although FCCCND receives funding from the Ministry of Community Safety and Social Services (MCSS) and the Ministry of the Attorney General to support our women’s programs, each year we struggle more and more to meet the increasing demands of this growing client population. Younger women are experiencing power and control in their dating relationships and older women are finding the courage to seek help for years of abuse. With your help, we can continue to transform these women’s lives and break the cycle of violence.
Come to our walk-in counselling clinic on Thursdays 1-7:00 pm for help.