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COMMENTARY: Three cases put spotlight on troubling problem of domestic violence

Violence against women does not discriminate across class, education, race or religion. Domestic abuse is still a pressing issue in Canada.

I was in Grade 5 when I first learned about domestic violence. My mom picked me up after school on her way to a meeting at the Pictou County Women’s Centre. It was in an old two-storey house by the East River, around the corner from the Frenchy’s and Louis’s — the best second-hand clothing stores in town. But without my older sisters I wasn’t allowed to go shopping. I had to wait at the women’s centre, in a living room with well-worn couches and floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

Instead of doing my homework, I skimmed through book titles on battered women, wife abuse, family violence, domestic assault, date rape. The terms were all new to me.

Later that year, my mom volunteered at Tearmann House, a transition house for abused women. I remember asking what the shelter was for and my mom explained that the women and children were fleeing abusive partners and fathers. It was the first time I understood what all those books were about.

Slowly, my understanding of violence against women grew. Tracy Chapman’s song Behind the Wall, on her eponymous 1988 album, haunted me. I marched on International Women’s Day and joined Take Back the Night walks.

When I started out as a reporter doing cop calls, often the duty officer would brush off most calls as “a bunch of domestics,” or domestic abuse cases. We didn’t report on those cases. Charges were seldom laid and an argument gone awry isn’t newsworthy. But Chapman’s words always hovered in the back of my mind: “The police always come late, if they come at all. And when they arrive, they say they can't interfere with domestic affairs, between a man and his wife. And as they walk out the door, the tears well up in her eyes.”

Despite what sounded from police like a troubling number of unreported domestic abuse cases, I took solace in the fact that rates of police-reported domestic violence were dropping in Canada.

In 2009, the rate of 3.5 spousal homicides per million people was 44 per cent lower than 30 years ago, according to a Statistics Canada report on family violence. In Atlantic Canada, the number of spousal homicide victims dropped to three in 2015 from 10 in 1997. Moreover, according to police records, the overall rate of police-reported intimate partner physical assaults was 230.2 per 100,000 people in 2014, a 12 per cent drop from 2009.

Women’s increased economic independence and social equality afforded many women the ability to leave abusive relationships earlier. Also, efforts to end domestic violence have increased public awareness of family violence, spurred treatment programs for violent men and improved community services, police training and legislation, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

When cops would mention the nightly flood of domestic calls, I knew violence against women was a troubling, complex societal problem. But domestic abuse is easily conflated with other issues, brushed off as a problem stemming from addiction, poverty, lack of education, the effects of systemic racism, mental health issues.

But then three recent cases shook my complacency to the core. 

In early December, Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Mohammed Shamji was charged with the first-degree murder of his wife, also a doctor. In the days following the shocking discovery of the body of Elana Shamji, 40, in a suitcase near a Toronto-area highway, it was revealed that Shamji had been charged with assaulting his wife more than a decade earlier but that the charges had been dropped.

Then in the early hours of New Year’s Day, Halifax police arrested Maroun Diab, the husband of Nova Scotia's immigration minister, on charges including assaulting, choking and uttering threats against his wife. Lena Diab and two others have been identified as the alleged victims.

Neither case has been proven in court.

This week, the bodies of a former soldier struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and three members of his family were found dead in what police say was a murder-suicide. Lionel Desmond, a veteran of the Canadian Forces, had sought treatment for his condition, and admitted on social media to being over-controlling of his wife.

While all three cases are vastly different with unique circumstances, they are similar in one way. All three wives — a family physician, a provincial cabinet minister and a nurse — were educated and successful. 

Roughly every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner, figures from Statistics Canada show. And out of the 83 police-reported intimate partner homicides in 2014, 67 of the victims — more than 80 per cent — were women. Perhaps even more disturbingly, nearly three-quarters of spousal violence is never reported, Statistics Canada estimates.

A lot has changed since I thumbed through books on battered women more than 20 years ago. But a lot hasn’t. It’s time we put the conversation about spousal abuse back on the front burner. We need to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of domestic assault, understand the barriers to leaving an abusive relationship and ensure there are services and resources in place to help women and men.