When it comes to addressing issues of violence against women, it’s usually the same people who speak up, raise money and seek legislative change. Those people, for the most part, are women. Men’s voices – and, crucially, their wallets – have largely been absent, perhaps because the issue is uncomfortable. Perhaps they feel unwelcome in the discussion, or not as well-informed as they could be.
Change is slow to come, but it is arriving, thanks to initiatives like Strengthening Ties, a project of Women’s Shelters Canada, which asks men to step up to the plate. It is a project at once both simple and complex, because of the silence that surrounds domestic violence. The simple part: Strengthening Ties is looking for 50 men across the country to make a $3,000 commitment over three years to Women’s Shelters Canada. They also agree to be advocates speaking out against domestic violence; that, perhaps, is trickier than writing a cheque.
‘’It might be an uncomfortable topic to get involved in, and that plays a big part,’’ says Dave Friesema, CEO of Sleep Country Canada, who’s a founding member of the project. He adds, ’’I personally think it’s shocking that men aren’t more involved in funding this type of initiative. There are zero charities in this space that are funded by men, and I think it’s time that changed.”
Phil Soper, president of Royal LePage, is another founding member of Strengthening Ties. When he’s talking to an audience, he addresses the squeamishness up front: “It’s uncomfortable to stand in front of a group of men and women and talk about how 50 per cent of the audience causes so much pain for the other half. I say to them, ‘I know it will make some of you uncomfortable, but it’s not about you being bad people or flawed, it’s about a problem in society that needs to be fixed.’’’
The organization was in its planning stages before the MeToo movement began receiving global attention last autumn. While that wave of activism shed light on workplace sexual misconduct, the issue of intimate partner violence remains largely in the dark, with victims often living in self-enforced silence.
So far, there are 37 men committed to Strengthening Ties; surely there are another 13 men across the country who have a spare $3,000 and the courage to speak out in support. Let’s hope there are even more, because women’s shelters and transition houses could use the help. This week, representatives from more than 500 shelters gathering in Ottawa for their first annual meeting could use some good news.
“In terms of raising funds for violence against women, it’s a dark topic and it’s still very challenging,” says Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada. “It’s not like breast cancer or children’s hospitals.” She points out that the corporate sector isn’t very interested in big-ticket donations to the cause, with a few notable exceptions (Royal LePage’s Shelter Foundation, for instance, has raised some $25-million.)
The issue is as pressing as ever. As Ms. Martin points out, at least 67 women have been murdered in Canada in the first five months of this year, and in many of those cases a partner or former partner is implicated. While there is progress on a federal level, with domestic violence recognized as a priority in the recent national housing strategy, things aren’t so rosy at the provincial level: a number of provinces haven’t raised their funding for women’s shelters in a decade.
The funding crisis strikes in different ways across Canada: For northern and remote shelters, many of which serve areas as large as Belgium, the issues are largely around the cost of transporting women and their children to safety. For refuges in Toronto and Vancouver, the problem is that most facilities are over-capacity, exacerbated by a lack of affordable long-term housing for women striking out on their own. In smaller cities, it’s raising funds for the shelter itself. As Ms. Martin says, “How do you organize a million-dollar campaign for a new shelter in Timmins? The money just isn’t there.”
There is money out there, as yet untapped. It’s in the wallets of men who have been too uncomfortable to step forward, or perhaps have never been asked. They might not have known how to make a tangible difference, until now.