Quebec women's shelters and support networks call for collective effort to prevent conjugal violence

Community groups who work with vulnerable women in Quebec say everyone has a role to play in helping prevent intimate partner violence.

"We can't stay silent, we have to act," says co-ordinator of Quebec shelter network

The co-ordinator of Montreal's South Asian Women's Community Centre, Ghazala Munawar, says education and translation of resources into people's languages of origin are key to preventing further violence against women in Montreal. (Submitted by the South Asian Women's Community Centre)

On Monday, Montreal police found the body of a 32-year-old woman in an apartment in Parc Extension. It was the city's 13th homicide and could be the 14th death linked to intimate partner violence in Quebec this year.

Police say the woman's 30-year-old partner is a suspect and they're still trying to locate him. Court records show the man was charged with uttering threats to his partner in May.

The people who work with women fleeing violence say a free helpline and more government funding for services are good first steps.

But they say society as a whole needs to play an active role to help women who are trapped in dangerous relationships, especially when they come from communities where language can be a barrier.

Maud Pontel is co-ordinator of a provincewide network that offers housing to women transitioning from emergency shelters to independence. She says people need to speak up when they see potential signs of intimate partner violence.

"We can't stay silent, we have to act and sadly, we have to act fast," Pontel said.

Helpline not just for victims

Pontel says SOS violence conjugale, Quebec's helpline for domestic violence, isn't just for people experiencing abuse.

"Victims, neighbours, relatives can call either for services for a victim, for advice...or if they know someone who could be an abuser as well," she said, "because this line will refer people to services specifically according to their needs."

She says any sort of breakup, especially when there's a history of abuse, is the biggest red flag.

"In a situation of conjugal violence, the moment that a woman is most at risk of being murdered is right after separation," she said.

When a case of domestic violence ends up in court, Pontel says, proper risk assessments should be carried out as well as regular follow-ups with both parties involved.

"And I think that wasn't the case in this situation," she said of the couple who lived in Parc Extension, a neighbourhood known to many as Park Ex.

Maud Pontel is co-ordinator of l'Alliance des maisons d'hébergement de 2e étape pour les femmes et enfants victimes de violence conjugale. She says there needs to be more second stage shelters created in Quebec, to help victims of conjugal violence get back on their feet and transition to independence. (Submitted by Maud Pontel)

Afraid to come forward

Ghazala Munawar, the co-ordinator of the South Asian Women's Community Centre in Montreal, says the victim was from India and was likely Punjabi.

She says the South Asian women she works with are often afraid to come forward because they're afraid of being publicly humiliated and are taught to keep things within the family.

"We are from South Asia so culturally, these countries, it's a patriarchal society," said Munawar. "There are things that we are raised with. The patriarchy has told us not to go against the visions of the man of the house."

"It's very sad because we think that if this woman had [received] outreach somewhere she could have been saved," she said.

Munawar says there needs to be more funding from the government to translate outreach materials from women's shelters and support networks into languages other than French and English.

Right now some of that work is being done locally, but she says the funding her centre receives is "peanuts" compared to the demand for its services.

Community approach

Melpa Kametoros, executive director of Shield of Athena Family Services in Park Ex, says there needs to be increased co-operation between police and community workers.

For example, her organization is part of a rapid response group in Laval. When there's a particularly dangerous case of conjugal violence, police, health professionals and city workers sit down to discuss how to make sure the victim is safe and to decide which resources they should be referred to.

Kametoros says this approach should be adopted in Montreal and throughout the province.

"If there's a police intervention, then the police have to know where to refer," said Kamateros, "and if they don't refer to the proper places, then what happens after?"

"There has to be a constant monitoring of the victim as much as the abuser, in order to be able to properly address the situation," she said.

Shield of Athena's director, Melpa Kamateros, said stricter conditions and better monitoring of alleged abusers is needed throughout Quebec. She'd like to see a more collaborative approach between police, health workers and community support groups who work with victims and abusers. (CBC)

Second stage shelters, another layer of protection

Pontel says the resources available to women at risk should be seen as "a continuum of services," one that extends beyond emergency shelters where victims can stay for two to three months.

"When it comes to second stage shelters, we know some women, they need more services, they need more time, because of the [dangerousness] of their abuser," she said.

"We provide services up to a year, that means the woman will have the time to rebuild her life, to gain her power back and to make sure that [she] and her kid will be safe."

Pontel says the second-stage shelter network offers help with court procedures as well as psychological support and counselling to help people better understand their situation.

"For some women it will take up to seven trips to a shelter to finally decide to leave her abusive partner," she said.

If you are affected by domestic violence, SOS violence conjugale is a provincewide toll-free crisis line, available 24/7. You can reach them at 1-800-363-9010 by phone, or via text at 438-601-1211 

With files from Matt D'Amours