She’s Documented Violence All Over The World, But Domestic Abuse in Canada Shocked Her
She’s Documented Violence All Over The World, But Domestic Abuse in Canada Shocked Her
By Shelley Saywell  

I’ve spent almost three decades making films on human rights and conflict, largely focused on violence against women. I’ve made documentaries on rape camps in Bosnia, on the civilian (largely women) toll of small arms and on so-called 'honour killings' in Jordan and the West Bank. I’ve filmed in Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Iran…. So many places where women suffer unimaginably from conflict and violence.

"They let us into their lives and their battles. They did so because they want the message out there — loud and clear. Domestic violence can happen to anyone, and it does. Society is failing to keep them safe."

I always thought of Canada and home as a safe haven. But that idea was shattered when I realized that for thousands of women in our own country, home is the place where most violence occurs. Home for some women is a place of personalized terrorism.

A Shifting Conversation

This past year has been full of news on this topic, from the Ray Rice elevator video, to Bill Cosby, to Jian Ghomeshi. Violence against women has become a dinner party topic. Anecdotally, it feels like an epidemic as more and more women speak out, telling the personal stories they have long kept hidden.

The numbers are staggering. Domestic violence causes nine times the number of deaths as civil wars, globally. One in three women have experienced violence in their lifetime. In Canada, in the same ten year period, three times more women were killed by their partners than all our troops killed in Afghanistan.

MORE:
Watch The War At Home

Every six days, a Canadian woman dies this way.

Breaking The Silence

What is perhaps more shocking, in a country like ours, is that we have no national strategy to prevent violence against women. Aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing at unimaginable rates. And women of every background and economic strata suffer alone, ashamed to speak out, terrified to leave.

When they do leave, the first 18 months are the most dangerous. Even if they have a place to go (and many do not), survivors face stigma and a justice system that often feels like re-abuse. They live through all this in fear and anger, knowing their partner is unlikely to serve time, or be held accountable.

Making a film on the subject is a challenge. Women are afraid to speak out, lawyers are afraid you will get sued. Courts issue publication bans, filming is not allowed in courtrooms. There are many layers of silence around this story. 

We were lucky to find a group of women whose courage in speaking out is astonishing. They let us into their lives and their battles. They did so because they want the message out there — loud and clear. Domestic violence can happen to anyone, and it does. Society is failing to keep them safe.

police file photo of abused womanPolice file photo of Cristin Hepting after she was beaten by her partner

In a “he-said, she-said” story that unfolds behind closed doors, “proof” is hard to come by. It is often not until a woman is killed that we acknowledge the violence, or the crippling fear they have been subjected to. We learned, making this documentary, that there are inescapable patterns of behavior behind this violence that if understood by authorities, could be used to stop it. “Control” is a word that all the women used, as their stories echoed each others. No matter the background, or economic strata, we witnessed similar patterns.

We learned that the justice system feels like re-abuse for many women, exposing them to intimidation and fear. Restraining orders often don’t keep them safe. Family and criminal courts have different mandates, and often seem to contradict rulings. Police and judges reflect society’s over-arching prejudice. Most often the perpetrators serve no time, and they re-abuse. In cases of domestic murder, sentences are shorter than for all other murders. The system, according to women survivors, is simply broken.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Nneka MacGregor asks why we're not holding the offenders accountable.
"Not all men who have grown up in violence perpetuate it. It is a choice. It should be considered for what it is: unacceptable."

We hope that by telling the stories of a handful of incredibly brave women, we will shed some light on this dark story, and start a conversation. It seems that our country, like everywhere, still has miles to go in finding a way to stop this violence, and the attitudes that fuel it.

Not all men who have grown up in violence perpetuate it. It is a choice.

It should be considered for what it is: unacceptable. Violent men should be held accountable, and our women should be protected and kept safe. Like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) we believe it's time to end the silence and promote zero tolerance. 

Home should be a safe place, for all of us.

Watch  The War at Home.

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