For victims of domestic violence, aid organizations can be lifelines

Published on: November 4, 2016 | Last Updated: November 4, 2016 12:59 PM EST
Note to readers: Unless otherwise indicated, the names of the women who shared their stories of abuse for this article have been changed. As well, one of the counsellors is identified only by her first name.
“On average, a woman will try to leave an abusive partner seven times before she leaves for good,” Karina, a counsellor, tells the women gathered around two tables in the meeting room at Auberge Transition, one of about 20 Montreal-area shelters for women and children who are fleeing abusive relationships.
Karina is leading a “café-rencontre” — a weekly session for residents of the shelter. Today, some former residents have come to the café-rencontre, too, to share their stories and offer hope to the new arrivals.
Ines can sympathize with Karina. She is a former resident now living in subsidized housing with her three children. It took her nearly 20 years to leave her husband, whom she met and married in Morocco.
“He hit me the day of our marriage,” recalled Ines, 43. “My own mother told me to stay, to be patient, that he would change.” 
Ruby and her 14-month-old daughter arrived at Auberge Transition, where women and children can stay for up to three months, in the middle of September. She pulls up her sleeve to show the bruise on her arm — a reminder of the last argument she had with her husband.
Ruby, 25, says her husband’s insults were as damaging as the physical violence.
“He told me I was a bad mother. I felt I was ugly and useless and not a good mother. Luckily, other people around me made me realize it wasn’t true.”
Victims of conjugal violence often live in denial, failing to recognize the severity of their situation or the danger they are in. Had a family friend not spotted the bruised arm, Ruby might have stayed with her husband.
“My friend told me she had experienced violence too, and that she had been at a shelter. She told me to phone SOS,” she said.
Sometimes I’m still afraid. My 14-year-old son’s voice is changing. Sometimes, I think it’s his father in the house. I ask him to lower his voice. – Ines, 43, who spent three months with her three children at Auberge Transition in 2015
SOS Conjugal Violence, a telephone hotline, refers women and children who are victims of domestic violence to a network of shelters and services across the province. Director general Joane Turgeon says the hotline receives around 25,000 calls annually.
“Last year, the average was 73 calls a day.”
Turgeon, who was trained as a psychologist, teaches a course on domestic violence at the Université de Montréal and understands why it often takes several attempts before a woman can leave an abusive relationship.
“It’s the person she loves most,” she noted. “It’s hard for her to see what is happening as violence. She thinks she is the problem.”
Turgeon’s staff of 15 never push the women who phone the hotline to leave their relationships.
“We tell women they need to talk to someone — that can help to get women out of the prisons they find themselves in,” Turgeon said.
SOS Conjugal Violence was founded in 1987. The idea for the hotline came from staff at the various shelters who wanted a central phone number for women in distress, and for those who were concerned about them.
At the time, there were around 20 shelters across the province; now, there are close to 100.
Turgeon, who joined the organization in 2008, has witnessed important changes in how women and society at large respond to domestic violence.
“Generally we are more sensitized,” she said. “We talk about it more, and more resources are available.”
To break the cycle of violence, she says, we must talk to young people about healthy relationships.
“We must tell them that love has nothing to do with violence. It’s important to find someone who loves and respects us.”
This month, Auberge Transition marks its 40th anniversary. The shelter, one of the first in Canada, was founded by a group of feminist activists and began at the downtown YWCA. Later, it moved into a house in Montreal’s west end. Like all shelters for victims of domestic violence, the location is kept secret to ensure the safety of its residents.
Auberge Transition has room for nine women and their children. Over the course of a year, it houses about 100 women and their kids.
In addition to providing safe housing, the facility offers individual counselling, group workshops, as well as accompaniment to legal and medical appointments.
There is also an off-site location, which offers outreach services as well as continued support for women who have lived at the shelter. 
Director Irene Jansson has been affiliated with the shelter since 1997. Over the years, the shelter’s approach to helping women affected by domestic violence has remained essentially the same.
“We empower women to take back their lives by giving them tools and knowledge so they can make informed decisions,” she said. “Women are ultimately the ones who are the experts in what they have lived or are still living.”
One change Jansson has observed during her time with the organization is a drop in the number of women who return to their abusive partners.
“When I first began, it was about four in 10. Now, for us, only one in 10 go back.”
Cerise Morris, a psychotherapist and one of the founders of Auberge Transition, says although the incidence of domestic violence has not decreased in the last 40 years, victims of conjugal violence now see more options than women did in the past.
“If women do go back to the relationship, they go back with a stronger sense of how things need to change and how their partners have to behave,” Morris said.
It can be difficult for victims of domestic violence to talk about their experience. For some, it is easier to express themselves in other ways, such as through art. Art therapist and painter Abha Singh has offered weekly sessions at Auberge Transition since 2005. Last week, she asked participants in her session to draw something important to them at this moment in their lives.
My experience in the shelter is making me stronger. I learn from the other women’s stories. I’m not alone. I can still be positive. – Mayna, 32, who has been living at Auberge Transition for two months
Melina, who is 27 and has an 8-year-old son, has nearly completed her three months at the shelter and is preparing to move into second-stage housing — a safe, partially subsidized apartment residence where families can live for one to two years. She left her partner in March, and stayed at another shelter before transferring to Auberge Transition.
Melina brought a copy of the book The Little Mermaid to Singh’s art-therapy session. Melina used acrylic paints to reproduce the book’s cover, only she omitted the images of the little mermaid and her prince.
“Life is just not a fairy tale,” she said when asked to explain the feelings behind her painting. “My picture represents calm and peace,” she added.
Mayna, who has been at Auberge Transition for two months, is reluctant to share details of the abuse she suffered, saying only “I experienced every type of violence.”
Mayna, 32, used to enjoy doing art when she was in elementary school in Tunisia. During Singh’s session, she drew a road that starts off dark and narrow, but expands into something wide and colourful.
“This is like my life,” she said, “because I see that now I have more choices and freedom. I feel positive and I have hope for the future.”
Shield of Athena, a multilingual network of services for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, also marks an anniversary this year — its 25th.
The organization began as an outreach program for Montreal’s Greek community. In the early years, it worked to promote awareness about domestic violence, offering information sessions to women and men at Greek churches.
“We didn’t expect to receive clients,” director Melpa Kamateros recalled.
“I was one of 15 women who founded the organization,” she said. “We all knew a friend or family member who had been a victim of conjugal violence. Someone even had a relative who had been murdered in the U.S.”
In 1994, Shield of Athena began reaching out to other communities. Today it runs a shelter and offers outreach services at two locations, in Montreal and Laval. It offers services in 15 languages to more than 600 clients annually.
Kamateros says 25 to 30 per cent of women housed at the shelter speak neither English nor French.
“Often, these women don’t have a choice to get out or to change their situation. They also can’t access services.”
You need to see yourself through others’ eyes and listen to their advice. Victims are the last to see their situations. The first months after you leave are the hardest, but even if it’s hard, at one point it will become much better for you and your children. – Anna, 44, who spent two weeks at the Shield of Athena shelter in 2012
Like Auberge Transition, Shield of Athena has not changed its approach since its inception.
“We do what we do on a larger scale,” Kamateros said. “While we worked initially with one community, we now work with many.”
Mona met her husband in Pakistan on the day of their marriage 13 years ago. At first, he was kind, but after she joined him in Canada and became pregnant, he turned verbally and physically abusive.
Mona, 43, still has a welt on her left shoulder from the time her husband burned her with a cigarette.
“In my country, this is normal,” she said. “Some women are burned with acid. I was raised to think a husband is like a god. I didn’t want to divorce him.”
In 2013, the Amal Centre for Women, which helps those whose lives have been affected by domestic violence, referred Mona to Shield of Athena.
“I was in hell when I came to the shelter,” she said. “My husband had called me a bitch every day, and a whore every night. I started to believe it was true. But every day at the shelter changed me. I began to feel safe and secure.”
Mona’s sons, now 9 and 10, changed, too.
“They had seen so much violence. They fought a lot.” But within a few months, the boys settled down.
Mona knows how difficult it can be to leave an abusive relationship. Today she and her sons live in a subsidized housing facility. She returned to school to study hairdressing, and now works at a beauty salon in Laval. 
“The first step is the hardest. Then it gets easier,” she said.
“Every day at work, I hear stories about women in different violent situations. Sometimes I tell them, ‘There are places that can help you.’” 
Where to call for help: SOS Conjugal Violence, 1-800-363-9010. This province-wide telephone hotline is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Shield of Athena, 514-274-8117. This organization offers multilingual services to women and children affected by domestic violence.
The cycle of domestic violence
Tension: During this period, the abuser positions himself as the one who has power, and women often feel afraid.
“During the tension phase, women always say, ‘I feel as if I’m walking on eggshells,’” explained Siran Nahabedian, a social worker with Shield of Athena.
Explosion of violence: Violence can take many forms, including verbal (insults and threats), physical and sexual.
Justification: During this period, the abusive partner attempts to justify his behaviour.
“Abusive men never take responsibility for the abuse,” Nahabedian said.
Honeymoon: During this phase, a woman may threaten to leave the relationship. Her partner will feel he is losing control. He may try to get her back by crying, apologizing or giving gifts.
According to Nahabedian, as the cycle continues, the honeymoon phase becomes shorter, and tension and explosions of violence worsen.
“Sometimes women say it’s just tension and violence.”