Recent murders in Quebec remind us of the prevalence of domestic violence in Canada

The numbers prove it: Women continue to be killed off by the men they’re closest to
Photo: Let Ideas Compete

Barely three weeks after the body of Samantha Higgins, a 22-year-old mother of a toddler and baby, was found decapitated and stuffed in a bag in a river in Hinchinbrooke, Quebec, Cheryl Bau-Tremblay, 28, went missing. Five months pregnant, Bau-Tremblay was last seen by her boyfriend, Alexandre Gendron.

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I didn’t dare utter my gut response out loud. I didn’t tweet about it or irresponsibly speculate in public. I thought that the horrific and gruesome details in the Higgins case, where the fiancé was charged with murder and dismemberment, had made me vulnerable to suspecting the person closest to the missing woman. Only in private conversations with close friends did I share my suspicions. “I think her partner did it. This poor woman is dead.”

A few days later my worst suspicions were confirmed. Bau-Tremblay’s body was discovered in her home, and Gendron was formally charged in her death.

Of course, a couple of back-to-back violent deaths of women allegedly at the hands of their partners doesn’t mean that the when someone goes missing we should immediately see their partner as suspicious or guilty.

But my suspicions weren’t based just on sensitivity to the recent violence. They were based on statistical probability.

The fact is domestic violence against women happens so often and with such recurring banality that we rarely get to focus on it. We barely get to mourn one victim before there’s another.

The statistics are staggering. Here are some of the harrowing numbers compiled by the Canadian Women’s Federation:

  • On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.
  • About half (49 per cent) of all female murder victims in this country are killed by a former or current intimate partner. Only 7 per cent of male murder victims are killed by intimate partners. (This puts in context the complaints of male rights groups who claim they don’t get equal coverage.)
  • On any given day in Canada, more than 3,300 women (along with their children) are forced to sleep in an emergency shelter to escape domestic violence.
  • Each year, over 40,000 arrests result from domestic violence — that’s about 12 percent of all violent crime in Canada.
  • Since only 22 per cent of all incidents are reported to the police, the real number is much higher.

The strong sense of territorial entitlement many men seem to have over the women in their lives overwhelmingly contributes to domestic violence. Amanda Marcott, author of Why Men Kill Women Is Not a Mystery, explains how this entitlement over women’s bodies and lives seems to transcend cultures, religions, and race, and can be seen around the world in various forms and degrees.

Even more disturbing, despite rates of domestic violence actually decreasing in Canada from 2006 to 2010, the rate of intimate partner homicide committed against females increased. According to the Canadian Women Federation’s data, the rate for male victims fell by almost half over the same period.

And what’s even more surprising is that pregnant women don’t even get a reprieve or escape from such violence. In fact, pregnancy makes them more vulnerable. Experts say pregnancy is more likely to exacerbate feelings of stress and jealousy in an abusive partner, leading to more abuse. One in six abused women reports that her partner first abused her during pregnancy, and as many as 23 per cent of women experience intimate partner violence during their pregnancy.

In the United States, the leading causes of death for pregnant women are domestic homicide and suicide (usually preceded by abuse). Not medical complications, but actual physical violence — self-inflicted or partner-inflicted.

“While deaths due to obstetrically-related events, such as cardiac disease, infection, and hemorrhage, have decreased, maternal mortality due to injury has remained constant,” according to findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. More thorough screening and follow-up for domestic problems during pregnancy check-ups is vital.

We all need to be sensitized to the fact that intimate partner violence remains a huge problem in our society, and that any signs of duress, stress, physical violence, or emotional abuse inflicted on a pregnant woman may be a sign of something more sinister to come. Don’t look away. Don’t make excuses. Don’t mind your own business.

In 2004, 29-year-old Liana White of Edmonton was four months pregnant when she was stabbed to death by her husband. Her body was found in a ditch. In 2006, 30-year-old Manjit Panghali of Surrey, B.C. was four months pregnant with her second child when she disappeared. Her charred remains were found eight days later by the side of a road. In 2007, 25-year-old Aysun Sesen of Toronto was seven months pregnant with her first child when she died from multiple stab wounds to the abdomen. The baby died later in the hospital. Her husband was charged with her murder.

All these deaths were gruesome, violent, completely preventable, and inflicted by the people these women loved and trusted the most. They all deserved better.

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