As the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women approaches, long-time community activist Anna Willats says one group of women continues to endure a unique form of violence.
Yesterday, in a small lecture room at Ryerson University, where Willats spoke, a variety of activists and students gathered to make connections about women’s struggles in Toronto. Willats spoke about the recent success of the Shelter Sanctuary Status (SSS) campaign.
It’s the result of two years of activism to stop Canadian Border Service Agency officers within the GTA from going into or waiting outside any shelter or service which provides resources for women who are in, or who have recently left, abusive situations.
“Women are living with profound violence every day, but particular women are more vulnerable,” Willats said.
Willats said the campaign’s end goal is for Toronto to become a sanctuary city. It would allow everyone, regardless of immigration status, to have access to needed services without fear of being reported to immigration officials. Willats said the success of the SSS campaign is partly because of public sympathy towards women who experience violence.
“Some women are seen as deserving of support and others are not,” Willats said. She added that she sees deportation as a form of state-sanctioned violence against women.
“We’re working for victory one step at a time,” she said. “Our goal is all women, and men, should access services without fear.”
The Ryerson event was organized by the activist group, the Revolutionary Women’s Collective, on the eve of the anniversary of the Montreal massacre of women students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989.
Connie Sorio, the program co-ordinator of the Asia Pacific program of the ecumenical justice organization KAIROS, spoke at the event. She described what she sees as violence against women sanctioned by both the Canadian and Philippine governments.
In Canada, Sorio said, the chronic underfunding of violence against women services, prevents the causes of violence from getting addressed. Sorio spoke about the impact that exporting workers has on Philippine society.
“Despite the fact that the Philippine government would not acknowledge there is an export policy … if you look at their government agencies who push women to go overseas and look at employment, that itself is a statement.”
Sorio said that every day 4,000 workers leave the Philippines to seek employment. She said that of these workers, about 60 to 70 per cent are women. She also said that each day about eight to 10 coffins with these workers in them return home. She said the government does not hold inquiries to discover what happened to the dead workers.
“The social impact of migration to society… to particularly the children who are left without their parents, their mothers in particular … that alone I see that as violence against women,” Sorio said. “Being forcibly taken from their homes, taken away from their children to go out and get employment in dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs.”
Making a Canadian connection, sex-worker advocate and law student Wendy Babcock spoke bluntly about her view that Canadian law puts sex workers at risk.
Babcock talked about her experience with the legal system as a witness to her friend, Lien Pham’s murder in 2003. She said,at the time, her own lawyer was concerned that testifying would make her vulnerable to bawdy house charges.
Bawdy house legislation prevents sex workers from working in their own homes. The charge can lead to six months in jail. Babcock said her lawyer was unable to secure a guarantee where in exchange for talking to police, she would not face charges.
“It’s when I really realized the laws are really messed up,” Babcock said. “When people can’t go to the cops to say, ‘I have a friend who has been murdered; let’s talk about it,’ without fearing arrest themselves.”
Also attending the National Day of Remembrance Event, singer Faith Nolan ended the discussion with inspirational songs about social justice. Before performing, she spoke about prisoner rights in Canada. Nolan even questioned the term ‘Canada’ as divisive in the struggle for violence against women.
“We need to stop calling ourselves Canadian,” Nolan said. “My life is not confirmed by where I was born.”