For women facing abuse, culturally focused services are essential

Biggest obstacle for immigrants is often lack of awareness of available resources

The day I visited the Shield of Athena offices in Montreal, a group of young Collège du Rosemont students were being briefed on domestic abuse in ethno-cultural communities by Nanor Sinabian, a social worker who speaks five languages. In another room a group of McGill Law students worked on an internship project.

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When Shield of Athena Executive Director Melpa Kamateros says this is a teaching institution, she isn’t exaggerating. As much as the social services agency focuses on specialized multilingual intervention, the vast majority of their work focuses on community outreach and public awareness campaigns.

When the organization first developed an intervention program for the Greek community 23 years ago, it was looked upon with suspicion, criticism and even resentment, because saving a family’s honour from shame is of primordial importance and airing dirty laundry is never encouraged.

Kamateros says some people were worried about how programming on domestic abuse would affect the reputation of the Greek community. “But attitudes have changed over the years and trust has been gained. We’ve now taken the formula we successfully put in place here and are exporting it to other cultural groups.”

That formula may seem simple enough by today’s standards of expanded awareness campaigns, but it basically ensures that domestic abuse victims who find themselves isolated get the information they need.

Cultural Intermediaries

“The biggest obstacle to getting help for conjugal violence is that immigrant women are unaware of the resources available to them,” states Commander Vincent Richer of the Montreal police.

A lack of information was cited as the number one problem when accessing help in 93 per cent of the cases that Shield of Athena dealt with this year.

This is where outreach programs come into play. Polly Tsonis, Shield’s outreach coordinator, emphasizes how important it is for them to be culturally sensitive.

“You need to know the specific characteristics of each community, what’s important to them, how do you reach them, what are the channels of communication. Years ago, we started working with the local priests. After mass, the priest would invite parishioners to the church basement to have coffee and listen to us speak about domestic abuse. At first nothing happened, but after a while we’d start getting calls from women and often men calling for their friends or their daughters. In many of the countries these women have emigrated from, talking openly about domestic abuse is frowned upon. Getting the priest’s seal of approval and collaboration makes it easier and much more acceptable for victims to come forward.”

Narod Odabasiyan, director of Hay Doun, which provides family support services to the Armenian community in Montreal, agrees that the church is often the first place victims of abuse turn to.

“When women emigrate here they often know no one and have no idea where to turn. The first community bond that makes sense to them is the church and their pastor or their imam. It’s important for religious leaders to be ready and informed so they can refer these women in need.”

When women emigrate here they often know no one and have no idea where to turn.

“All communities are essentially the same,” adds Tsonis. “The same prejudices, the same taboos, the same questions, the same fears. Sometimes you have to mask those domestic abuse awareness sessions as innocuous family and cooking sessions or language lessons to get them to show up. Once they do and they understand the definition of abuse, explained in their own language, the light bulbs go on.”

The Shield’s social workers speak at government-sponsored French immersion classes and to a number of educational establishments in the Montreal area. Their cultural intermediary service program is specifically designed to help victims who don’t have a good working knowledge of French or English and come from different ethnic backgrounds.

Their mandate is to accompany abused women during consultations so as to provide the necessary cultural and linguistic interpretations for intervention. Demystifying the social services network and the laws is a big part of that.

For those who have experienced violence, having someone who speaks their language and understands their culture makes the process of reporting or walking away from an abusive situation much less intimidating. The cultural intermediaries accompany these women to services such as the police, municipal court and welfare office.

This year alone, the Shield provided interpretation and translation services in nine languages: Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Russian, Tamil and Yugoslavian.

Ethnic media outreach program

“Being proactive is the key,” elaborates Kamateros. “We don’t just speak to the victims, but also to the communities they come from in the language of their origins. We aim to provide a definition of conjugal violence and a basis of comparison as to what a good relationship and a bad relationship looks like. We remind them what the police laws are here in Quebec.”

According to Statistics Canada, Montreal is home to the third-largest foreign-born population in the country, having 740,400 foreign-born residents who accounted for 12 per cent of the country's total foreign-born population.

The Ethnic Media Outreach Program was developed to address the specific needs of the women and the communities where issues of linguistic and cultural access exist and to increase public awareness of domestic violence and related resources in communities where there is little to no knowledge of either of Canada’s official languages. In other words, ethnic media is the key to reaching them, because sometimes that’s all they come in contact with.

The Montreal chapter of the program is coordinated by the Shield of Athena, and to date, public radio broadcasts have been done with 12 communities (Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Haitian, South Asian, Iranian, Spanish, Chinese and Russian), reaching close to half a million people. The Shield of Athena has produced 25 television programs and countless of brochures and newspaper articles in 15 different languages during a two-year period.

The program messages include violence is not acceptable; there is no shame in disclosure; everybody is hurt by violence; abuse happens everywhere; there are resources for men, women, and children; men are part of the solution; laws exist to protect the victims; and violence is not a feminist issue, it is a human rights issue.

In addition to linguistic barriers, cultural and religious factors, extended families, societal roles and sexual stereotyping are often problems. Importantly, these issues may also be faced with silence at the community level, as they are rarely discussed openly, and sometimes even tolerated. Community leaders may engage in denial, anger and minimization of the problem, as they view domestic violence as a private family matter.

Integration and self-sufficiency workshops

This past December, the Shield completed a 24-month project intended to provide a model of services and activities adapted to the specific needs of women victims from ethno-cultural communities.

A series of 22 integration and self-sufficiency services and workshops were developed for former residents of shelters, dealing with a variety of issues, such as self-presentation, nutrition, and how to create an email address. It’s important to remember that for some of these women, even learning how to take the metro on their own is an achievement. Having community workers accompany them to the workshops facilitated their feelings of self-worth and broke their isolation. Increasing their self-esteem and decreasing their fear of the unknown and society are integral ways to help these women transition and move on.

Currently in progress at the Shield is a three-year project, funded by the Women’s Program at Status of Women Canada, aimed at preventing so-called honour-based violence. The project provides for the training of South Asian, Afghan and Arab outreach agents, who inform their respective communities about the issue, identify risk factors and screen for possible victims so they can be referred to the appropriate resources. Development of a legal website on women’s rights in Canada and Quebec is also in the works.

The Shield’s shelter is one of 100 shelters in Quebec. Annually 13,000 women with their children pass through the shelter system in this province.

“There are very few transition homes in Quebec, and the ones that do exist are not adequately funded,” states Kamateros. “We want to create more transition homes where women can stay for up to six months or up to a year and transition to a normal life. In the case of women from ethno-cultural communities, it gives them the time to learn the language, a trade, and not become part of the welfare society, which no woman wants to be part of.”

Reaching out

According to statistics, on average a woman will go in and out of a shelter at least seven times before she makes the decision to leave an abusive relationship.

“It’s all part of the cycle of violence,” says Kamateros. “It’s a humane thing to hope for change and to want to forgive. We don’t judge if the woman goes back because no one else is in her shoes. We do, however, counsel that if her life is in danger, she speedily go to a shelter and stay there until the crisis is over.

On average a woman will go in and out of a shelter at least seven times before she makes the decision to leave an abusive relationship.

“Before coming to work here, I used to think that ‘gender-based violence’ was exaggerated jargon,” Sinabian admits sheepishly. “But after four years of working here, I know that it’s very real and very serious.”

The goal is to get to communities before it’s too late.

“We can’t wait for ethno-cultural communities to come looking for the information,” Kamateros states emphatically.

“We have to provide the information to them to raise awareness as effectively as possible. Knowledge is power, power is choice, and choice is action.”

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