Breaking the Silence around Gender-Based Violence

How a Canada Research Chair’s community-led outreach model is impacting lives

Date published: 2023-12-06 10:00:00 AM

Photo: istock.com/MicroStockHub

It’s a stark reality many Canadians may be shocked to hear. Every 48 hours in Canada, a woman or girl is killed in an act of gender-based violence. In 2022, 184 women and girls were murdered, primarily by men, a 27% increase over pre-COVID rates.

“I have been working on the front lines of this field for decades and the thing that I have really come to realize is that gender-based violence isn’t an accident. It’s not something that only happens somewhere else. It happens in all of our communities,” says Dr. Vicky Bungay, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Equity and Community Engagement at The University of British Columbia (UBC), director of UBC’s Capacity Research Unit, and associate director of Research in the School of Nursing and a registered nurse.

“We live in this amazing country with all of these resources and work that we’re doing in equity, diversity and inclusion, and yet, we have not moved the needle in gender-based violence.”

A society built on structural inequalities

Bungay has spent decades trying to unravel the complexities of gender-based violence and the intersectionality of violence, poverty, unemployment, substance use, and precarious housing that women face. At the core, she says, are structural inequalities deeply embedded in our society.

“It’s built right into the fabric of who we are as a society and how we value women and girls,” explains Bungay. “Everything that we perceive as masculine is seen as more valuable, more important and superior to anything that is perceived as feminine. When that is the normal structure of society, it means our policies, practices and programs reflect that and it creates a condition of vulnerability and risk where gender-based violence is going to happen.”

Bungay says the reality is that women continue to be significantly underpaid when compared to men for doing the same work, they are often the sole provider in single parent families and continue to struggle in the criminal justice system around what their rights are when they have been victimized by an intimate partner.

“Much of the advantages are still in favour of the perpetrator,” Bungay emphasizes. “My Canada Research Chair research program is primarily focused on understanding the different contexts in which women are situated and what factors are contributing to the risk of violence and how might we, as a society, be more creative in finding a solution.”

Outreach leads to understanding and trust

Much of Bungay’s research centres around women who are street involved or one paycheck away from homelessness. She—and her team of fellow researchers and community service organizations from across the country, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows— study and perform what they call “unconditional outreach.” It means there are no judgements and no requirements; they just try to meet each woman exactly where she is in her journey.

“What we commonly see in the system is a siloed response. If you have HIV, you are sent to one program. If you need housing, you are sent to another program. If you need help for substance use you have to go somewhere else. Sometimes these women must leave the violent situation as a condition of getting support,” Bungay explains.

“Instead, what if we changed the model of support? What if women didn’t have to meet requirements on a checklist to find support? What if we didn’t tell women what they had to do, and acknowledged and celebrated the fact they are survivors.”

STRENGTH builds trust

In 2018, Bungay and her research team put that model into practice when they launched the STRENGTH Pilot Project, funded through a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant. The outreach project built effective one-on-one relationships with women simultaneously experiencing street-involvement and gender-based violence. Over an 18-month period, the STRENGTH team met with hundreds of women in more than 1600 one-on-one encounters. The team also worked intensively, one-on-one, with 37 women helping them with supports like referrals, advocacy, housing, food security and harm reduction supplies. No questions asked. No requirements, just support. The project had one priority: to build trust.

“During our project, we worked with a lot of women who were not in any way ready to talk about the violence in their lives. They were in crisis mode and often needed basics,” Bungay explains. “Our team would ask ‘how can I help you right now?’. The answer would usually be just basic support like getting new glasses or food. Once we help with those items, we start building relationships and that’s when we can have conversations about other, more complex, needs like housing and health care.”

“Once women realize they have somebody in their corner they can trust, that’s when real change happens,” Bungay continues. “Our research shows that a non-punitive trusting relationship creates opportunity. That is an outreach model we are now trying to scale up.”

Scaling up unconditional outreach across the country

Building on STRENGTH’s success, Bungay and her team are now in the next phase of the project called Scaling Up Trauma and Violence-Informed Outreach with Women Affected by Violence, funded through a SSHRC Partnership Grant. The team is using their Community-Led Outreach and Engagement (CLOE) model, developed through the STRENGTH project and rolling it out in Kelowna, BC and Windsor, ON. The project’s focus is to provide outreach support to women experiencing intimate partner violence and/or those living in shelter.

One of the focus areas of our Scaling Up project is adapting outreach to women and their families who are moving out of a shelter and transitioning into their first home. Transition is a vulnerable time for women and their children. If they can be provided with outreach and support during that transition, it will help prevent them from being revictimized in the future.

“In my decades of work as a nurse and a researcher I’ve met so many women who have experienced intimate partner violence and often no one even knows,” explains Bungay. “I’ve met women who were injured and needed help. but they were told by their violent partner that they couldn’t go to the hospital. I’ve treated women who were unconscious, but their medical file shows a history of violent abuse. As researchers, we’ve spent time with women who we’ve lost to violence and that is heartbreaking.”

“Our research has demonstrated that trust keeps women engaged even during chaotic times in their lives,” adds Bungay. “Our CLOE model of outreach is trust-based and doesn’t give up on women just because they get housed or because they get a job. We recognize that violence prevention and recovery is a long-term activity. We need to stay connected with women at critical points in their healing journey.”

Bungay’s goal is to have this unconditional outreach model implemented in every province and community across the country. “Outreach is not expensive so that makes it highly scalable. Every province should develop a plan and an integrated service model between the public and not-for-profit organizations. We can’t keep leaning on the not-for-profit sector to do all the work.”

She adds that there also needs to be a shift in our mindset around gender equity and how boys are raised. “We need to have more training for staff in our schools so that kids who are victims of violence feel safe to come forward, because we know a boy who is a victim of violence is more likely to one day become violent himself,” says Bungay. “We need youth centres in every community with skilled counsellors who can identify those who need help.”

It’s personal

Bungay says the women she has worked with have had a huge impact on her life.

“This is deeply personal for me. You cannot not be affected by the power and will these women have to survive. Despite the thousands of murdered and affected women, these women never give up. So, we have to keep working so that we can move the needle and prevent the ongoing violence women face.”


Want to learn more?

Check out Vicky Bungay’s groundbreaking research through the UBC Capacity Unit here.