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February is time to Be More Than a Bystander

Violence against women statistics show we’re moving in the wrong direction

February is our city's Be More Than A Bystander month, a month to raise awareness of the importance of standing up and speaking out against violence against women and girls and all forms of gender-based violence. 

For the week of Feb. 17, the Hamilton sign in front of city hall was lit in the purple and grey colours of Interval House of Hamilton MentorAction's Be More Than a Bystander to acknowledge the vital importance of Being More Than A Bystander. As well, there are three Be More Than A Bystander awareness billboards in place for the month — one in the lower city, and two on Hamilton's Mountain.

Sometimes, people ask me why Be More Than A Bystander is necessary? The answer is blunt. Women have lost their lives and are losing their lives. Stats Canada report that every 2.5 days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. At one time the rate was every six days. Women and girls who identify as Indigenous are at a much higher risk of sexual violence and murder. As a country we are regressing when it comes to violence against women and girls.

Gender-based violence has a profound impact on children. Children are growing up motherless because of femicide, and children who witness violence in the home have twice the rate of psychiatric disorders as children from non-violent homes. Violence against women and femicide also has a high economic cost, with Canadians collectively spending each year some $7.4 billion (and growing) to deal with the aftermath of spousal abuse alone.

Male engagement in aligning with women's organizations is essential. After all, women did not create this issue. At Interval House of Hamilton we created MentorAction and expanded the role to include Be More Than A Bystander. Through this program we have partnerships with our elite sports organizations: Hamilton Bulldogs, McMaster Athletics and Hamilton Tiger Cats. Children and youth look up to and emulate their sports icons and so we have Be More Than A Bystander trained athletes along with Interval House professionals going into the schools, the locker rooms, and the rinks to talk to students and young athletes about consent, respectful relationships, and safely intervening to disrupt harmful behaviours, actions and comments that support her while letting the other person know what they're doing is not OK.

On the national front there is both hope and alarm. Hope in the form of legislation such as Bill C-5, an Act to amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code. If passed by parliament, it will ensure that all newly appointed provincial superior court judges undergo training to learn about the myths and stereotypes still associated with sexual assault cases. This is legislation that is desperately needed when we hear some outcomes and impacts of court cases that leave victims feeling re-victimized or the accused vindicated.

It was alarming to read/hear news in January where a convicted killer (he had murdered his female partner in 2004 and had an earlier record of sexual violence toward women) was out on parole to satiate his "sexual needs" and proceeded to murder MaryLene Levesque in a hotel in Quebec City's Ste-Foy district on January 22, 2020. The monstrosity of the crime and the monstrosity of the legal reasoning to release this convicted killer cannot be fathomed. It is a national tragedy. 

And that is why community programs such as Be More Than a Bystander to end violence against women and girls are vital. We must all work to change societal attitudes, to safely intervene when we see or hear inappropriate behaviours, to support social services so that there are good working systems in place to assist in interventions, to challenge systems in holding perpetrators accountable throughout the judicial systems.

Please, this month, and every month, Be More Than A Bystander. Sadly, emergency shelters are necessary to support the safety of women and children who have experienced abuse, violence or human trafficking. I long for the day perpetrators are held accountable and that zero tolerance of gender-based violence is enforced.

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