Connecting gender-based violence with institutional abuses

Wendy Komiotis, Executive Director, METRAC

Over the past weeks, two trending topics have emerged in the media. One is race-based police misconduct, inspired by happenings in Ferguson and other cities as well as the Toronto controversy surrounding police carding. The other is sexual violence as related to celebrity cases, campus assaults, workplace harassment and the 25th commemoration of the December 6 Montreal Massacre. In reflecting on both story streams, a question has arisen: why are these matters treated separately?

On the surface, it makes sense. Gender-based violence women and girls are most at risk of across Canada and the world seems removed from discriminatory outcomes of legal practices. Gender-based violence often happens in private contexts between people who know each other and race-based discrimination often occurs in the public sphere between strangers, based on profiling that most severely impacts young Black men – although several commentators have uncovered the hidden story of profiling of Black and racialized women and trans people as well.

Those who have worked hard to draw attention to both kinds of abuses struggle to ensure the public and decision-makers care about and act upon them, so they are rarely addressed in the same sentence. But some of the root causes of these problems are grounded in related realities.

  • Both are marked by a profound denial of the humanity of those who are victimized – added to that, a blaming of the victim and a sense they “deserved” what happened. This is where social media campaigns like #blacklivesmatter and #webelieveyou are exciting. They lead with the assertion that those who are victimized are to be taken seriously and treated with compassion and care.
  • Both heavily impact people who experience multiple marginalizations. While gender-based violence and racial profiling cut across many social lines, they hit those who have less access to resources and social power the hardest. In the case of gender-based violence, for example, this targeting of the most vulnerable puts young women, Aboriginal women and women with disabilities at especially high risk.
  • Both are influenced by stereotypes about gender. Common ideas about what it means to be a “real man” feed and shape gender-based violence and racial profiling alike, and the fact that young Black men face much of the brunt of profiling is not a coincidence. Black masculinity is considered particularly “dangerous” and young Black men are often proactively viewed as criminals. We have to acknowledge how racism intersects with myths of masculinity and creates unique hazards for Black and other racialized men.

There are more connections to note, but this is the broader point: if we want to end gender-based violence, we have to attend to the common abuses usually considered to be “the way things are”, including those perpetrated by institutions, authorities and systems. To deny the intersections makes it too easy for us to deal only with the symptoms of violence; individualize violence against those disproportionately targeted by it; and blame certain groups for bringing violence upon themselves. As a result, we miss the deeper problems that cause them.