Kitchener woman's death should spur conversations about domestic violence, experts say

The 2018 death of Kitchener's Yvonne Umutoniwasi should start conversations in Waterloo region about how domestic violence cases are handled and what the community at large can do, experts say. Umutoniwasi's boyfriend pleaded guilty to manslaughter for her death on Monday.

'One more life lost and one more person's life interrupted and dreams shattered,' Deepa Mattoo says

A police cruiser sits in front of the house where Yvonne Umutoniwasi's body was found in a closet in August 2018. Her boyfriend, Isaac Gany, pleaded guilty on Monday to manslaughter in her death. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A woman dies at the hands of an abusive boyfriend.

It's not an uncommon headline and it was repeated this week when a Kitchener man pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of his girlfriend, Yvonne Umutoniwasi.

The courtroom heard about how 28-year-old Umotoniwasi and Isaac Gany would fight with each other. He was convicted of assaulting her and the court ordered him not to contact Umutoniwasi.

He was repeatedly arrested for breaching the no-contact order. During his probation they had a baby together.

On Aug. 1, Umutoniwasi and Gany had a fight where she pulled a knife on him. He disarmed her and they drank alcohol.

The court heard that later that night, or during the early morning hours on Aug. 2, they fought again. Gany hit Umutoniwasi, causing her to fall back and hit her head on the wall. He went to bed.

When he woke up the next morning, Umutoniwasi was dead.

Gany put her body in a closet, put laundry baskets and garbage on top of Umutoniwasi's body, taped up a vent with tin foil and duct tape to keep the smell from spreading to other apartments and fled to Ottawa, then Montreal.

Many reasons women don't leave

From the outside looking in, the relationship was clearly abusive. But for many women, even if they realize the abuse isn't what love is supposed to look like, it's hard to leave, says Jennifer Hutton, CEO of Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region.

"It's unfortunately quite common. Domestic violence is such a complicated matter," she said. "There's so many factors why women may find themselves in these abusive relationships."

The most recent statistics show a woman tries to leave an abusive relationship about 14 times before they're able to leave for good, Hutton said.

In this case, there was a child involved who was placed into the care of Gany's mother. Children can complicate things when a woman wants to leave a relationship, Hutton said. 

Sometimes, the abuse is about power and control and there's a high level of manipulation, she said.

"Sometimes women just don't even know which way to turn because there's been so much power and control. There could be other complicating factors, not just children — pets, financial reasons," Hutton said.

Red flags

For Isabel Grant, the case raises many red flags. Grant is a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia and is connected to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability at the University of Guelph.

Grant says Umutoniwasi was highly socially isolated. Umutoniwasi was born in the Congo and both of her parents were murdered. She came to Canada as a refugee, but she was diagnosed as being cognitive low-functioning and likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"She was an immigrant woman, a racialized woman, a woman with significant mental health challenges," Grant said, noting Umutoniwasi's English may have been limited as well.

These factors make someone at greater risk for violence intimate partner violence and Grant says more could have been done to prevent her death since it was known Gany was violent towards her.

"I think it's particularly troublesome that we didn't intervene and that we didn't protect her from what ultimately happened in this case," Grant said.

"Time and time again we rely on things like probation orders and no contact orders that just don't do enough to protect women in these circumstances."

'She came to this country to be safe'

Deepa Mattoo is the executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which offers legal services, counseling and interpretation services to women who are survivors of domestic violence.

Deepa Mattoo is a lawyer and the executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic in Toronto, which offers legal services, counseling and interpretation services to women who are survivors of domestic violence. (Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic)

She says this is clearly a complex case and one that is so sad.

"My heart was literally sinking and I was thinking: One more life lost and one more person's life interrupted and dreams shattered," Mattoo said. "She came to this country to be safe."

Mattoo says hearing about this or similar cases, people may not think there's anything they can do. But there is.

"Think about, what can you do to bring those conversations in your family's lives and then your living rooms. How can you be part of that conversation and be a conduit in making the community accountable for change that we need," she said.

Mattoo also encourages people to get informed and learn about what is being done in the community to help prevent violence against women.

Anger 'is appropriate'

Grant agrees, saying it's OK for people to feel angry about the outcome of this case.

"I think that anger is something that is appropriate and I think that, rather than just feeling anger, I encourage people to act on that anger in a number of different ways," she said.

That includes demanding answers from politicians. She noted in the federal election in the fall of 2019, violence against women was not a major issue.

"Talk to politicians and make this a priority when you are deciding who you are going to elect at various levels of government all of whom have a role to play in this," she said.

Hutton says cases like this one can be frustrating but it also highlights the work they do to help women in Waterloo region.

"There is help so please reach out," Hutton said. "Even if women aren't really sure what they want to do, call somebody and talk that through."