Aboriginal Women Deserve a Public Inquiry.

We Canadians have always been proud of ourselves; we are a democratic society ruled by the will of the people. We vote and the majority governs, represents our interests, and crafts the laws accordingly -or does it? We have a say in what happens in our several levels of government –a voice in what is done to us… Unless we are a minority. Then we must depend upon the goodwill of those in power to understand and protect our interests. We must trust that, in their blinkered majority, they will not abuse us. Neglect us. Forget us.

But suppose they do. Suppose they surround themselves with their own advisors and see the world through their own lenses, their own authority, their own priorities? Suppose they don’t even understand that anyone could see things differently..? History, after all, is written by the victors, and culture by the dominant.

A case in point is the growing concern in Canada over a series of  missing and murdered aboriginal women –over 1000 in the past 30 years: http://www.nwac.ca/files/download/NWAC_3D_Toolkit_e_0.pdf

There have been various attempts to address the problems of  our First Nations –from a 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1307458586498/1307458751962 ) which did not address the issue of the missing women, to a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Task Force in 2011 (http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/mmaw-faapd-eng.pdf ) which apparently did…

But the problem remains and the perception that it is not really being addressed is building. In fairness, though, solutions are not only complex, but also expensive and so excuses are rife and rationalizations abundant. Missing women –murdered women- are crimes, not sociological phenomena, says the Prime Minister. Then why are aboriginal women –only one of several minorities in Canada- over-represented in the list, says the other side? An inquiry will tell us nothing new so we should put the money  into solving the problem instead, says the government. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/chelsea-vowel/missing-and-murdered-women_b_5729738.html?utm_hp_ref=email_share  The cheque’s in the mail in other words; we’re looking into it -you might get it tomorrow… Maybe.

And on and on it goes –I am reminded of Macbeth’s Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time…  Authority versus Minority. Civitas versus Communitas

But hold on; I think both sides are missing something: a conversation closes when one side or the other is adamant that only their view is the correct one.  Dialogue is an exchange of ideas on a particular issue whose aim should be to reach a consensus, an amicable settlement agreeable to both sides. Dialogue is communal, discursive at times, but inclusive. It does not stem from authority, nor resort to it especially when all have not been heard.

Autonomy -the right to make an informed choice- is a difficult issue in politics, of course. And because in this context choice usually involves large groups of people, there has to be an accommodation, an appreciation of how any decision might affect the well-being of the rest of the population. It has to be fair, in other words. But more than that, it has to be seen to be fair. And for that to occur, the issue cannot always be resolved by simply resorting to a vote. The majority and its own world-view bias will always win. Some things require discussion. Consensus. Open, accessible and representative input from all affected parties.

A Public Inquiry, by its very nature, invites public participation -a dialogue between those in power and those who aren’t- and a chance for all who are interested to have a say, voice their own opinions. It is healing to be heard –especially for a minority. To discuss things openly and publically often exposes underlying issues that need addressing: poverty, access to services, educational gaps, cultural safety, discrimination… A problem that has been swept under a carpet of denial or ignorance cannot be solved until it is uncovered for all –not just the minority affected- to see and appreciate.

I have discussed relational autonomy in a previous essay. It involves considering information in the cultural context, societal values, and the community needs of the groups involved. It is the expectation of cultural safety that will allow the people to express those needs without fear of ridicule or disdain. And it is what a representative democracy should encourage. Nothing less will do.

It seems to me that we all need to sit around a table somewhere and talk with –not at– each other. Remember Summer Camp when we were kids? As soon as the lights were turned off and the adults had left, we regaled outselves for hours with stories and discussions about what really mattered. Everybody had something to say, and everybody listened. We felt heard; we felt known. And slowly, by the end of the week, no matter our differences and annoying ideosyncrasies, we felt bonded in a community. Although we still remained individuals with different pasts and different futures, and although there were still disagreements we were, at least, no longer strangers. And, if the need arose, we could talk again – and actually listen. Friends can do that.

 

 

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Violence Against Women

According to a recent meta-analysis by the World Health Organization, one in three women worldwide are subject to intimate partner violence (IPV) http://www.sciencemag.org/content/340/6140/1527.short . And it’s not just a third world problem either, as we Canadians with our often parochial outlook would no doubt like to believe. True, some countries seem to be over-represented: ‘East Asia having the lowest incidence, at 16.30% (range, 8.9% – 23.7%), and Central Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest incidence, at 65.64% (range, 53.6% – 77.71)’, but we in Canada are certainly not immune. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/kirsty-duncan-/harper-womens-rights_b_4435285.html

Recognizing this, there has been a move to screen women for IPV in hopes of decreasing the violence or improving the outcomes for the victims. However, in a review published in the May 13 edition of the British Medical Journal, the lead author, Dr. Lorna O’Doherty from the University of Melbourne ‘Did not detect a decrease in rates of violence in women’s lives as a result of screening nor did it find improved mental and physical health outcomes for women.’ http://bit.ly/1m6Vskr

I have to admit that I had hoped that screening would have had more of an effect than is reported, but maybe on closer examination there are readily identifiable reasons for this. The whole issue seems to involve a complex algorithm with a lot of contextual conditions that have to be considered. First of all, the woman may not yet be ready to admit abuse is taking place; she may not actually see it as ‘abuse’ and so is unlikely to report it as such, even if asked. Or, perhaps she has thought about it, but isn’t yet ready to address or admit the issue –especially to others because of the stigma. There are phases through which she needs to progress in accepting and addressing the abuse. And yet, even if she is ready, her ability to admit it to someone else is going to be predicated on several factors -the WHO report again (and I quote an article in Medscape for the summary):

The report points out that certain healthcare settings (eg, antenatal clinics and HIV screening clinics) offer good opportunities to spot problems and intervene.

However, to be effective in such situations, the recommendations say, certain minimum standards need to be in place. Those include that:

  • providers need to be trained on how to ask about violence,
  • standard operating procedures need to be in place,
  • consultations need to take place in private settings,
  • confidentiality needs to be guaranteed,
  • referral arrangements need to established and maintained, and
  • providers need to be properly equipped to handle the physical and mental consequences of sexual assault.

This sounds reasonable; our obstetrical delivery unit provides universal IPV screening, but I am disappointed with the finding in that study published in the British Medical Journal that even so, the mental and physical outcomes for those women were not improved. And although we are probably missing the vast majority of women who suffer from abuse (and in some cases men as well -but more likely detected in a different venue), one would still like to hope that for those we have found, discovering the problem would be a step towards its solution.

But I think that public recognition of the problem is an equally important, if preliminary step. I sometimes wonder if we inadvertently stigmatize IPV because we, as a society, simply do not acknowledge it. It is something we’d rather not think about, or if we do, we do so judgementally. So, despite various professionals attempting to detect it and thereby (it was hoped) ameliorate the consequences, the victims remain reluctant to admit it is even happening. They, like the rest of us, see it as shameful and perhaps reflecting on their own choices, their own self-worth…

I’m reminded of our Canadian disgrace: the seeming indifference to the disappearance and violence against our Aboriginal women. There is, of course, lip service acknowledgement by the government that there might be a problem, but a rather indignant assurance that they are taking steps to resolve the issue seems to be all they have to offer. One could be forgiven for wondering whether they simply didn’t want any more public attention drawn to the problem.  http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/09/19/canada-un-aboriginal-women_n_3952425.html

I see the problem of violence against women differently. I think that the more it is publicized, the more it will be recognized, and the more will be society’s demand that the hitherto secret norm of violence will be seen to be inappropriate –no, not inappropriate, wrong. Think of the changing (I’d like to say changed but I suspect it would be premature) attitude to drinking and driving. As a society, we are realizing it is something to be condemned, not tolerated. Something that can be, and should be, discussed in the open. Something that is no longer acceptable…

It is possible to alter behaviour we have always viewed as undesirable, yet secretly condoned by our unwillingness to confront it. We need to acknowledge and tackle it as a society –and we need confront it often, publically, rationally, doggedly. I am reminded of something Lucretius wrote: The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling.