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Sweet heart, bitter pill: Rising, dancing and costing violence against women in Canada

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On Valentine's Day this year, women around the world will be dancing. One Billion Rising, a new initiative from Vagina Monologues' author Eve Ensler, calls on women to dance their way to a future without violence.

Now, I'm all for dancing, but I'd like to add a little counting into the mix. 

Each year, more than a million Canadian women and girls experience violence because they are women and girls. They are beaten in their own homes; they are harassed on the street; they are raped in their dorm rooms. The human cost of that violence is beyond measure. The economic cost is not. Violence against women in Canada costs our economy more than $7 billion each year. Understanding what violence against women costs us can help us understand what we need to spend to put a stop to it. Not to mention how inadequate the current response is.

For example, last year the federal department tasked with addressing violence against women and girls, Status of Women Canada, allocated $14.2 million to organizations for that purpose. That works out to $2.45 per person, per year.

That and 65 cents will buy you a large double-double and a maple dip.

Let's talk numbers.

Statistics Canada tracks numbers for two types of violence experienced predominantly by women: spousal violence and sexual assault. The most recent General Social Survey on violent victimization found that 2.4 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 reported having experienced sexual assault in the past year and 2 per cent of Canadians with a current or former spouse reported being physically or sexually victimized by their spouse in the past 12 months.

That works out to 1,087,081 Canadians.

Every year.

The survey also found that 7 out of 10 incidents of spousal violence and 9 out of 10 incidents of sexual assault were never reported and rates of reporting overall were going down. Double-double that 1.1 million.

Let's talk money.

In addition to the human cost of violence for survivors and their families, violence against women and girls costs Canada billions of dollars per year. That is "billions" with a "b." A Justice Canada survey of the cost of spousal violence alone puts the price tag at $7.4 billion. According to Justice Canada: "Victim costs ($6.0 billion) accounted for the largest proportion (80.7 per cent) of the total economic impact for cost items such as medical attention, lost wages, lost education, the value of stolen/damaged property, and pain and suffering."

There are no parallel studies of the cost of sexual violence in Canada. However, analysis of the economic costs of sexual violence in similar, high-income country settings indicates that they are similar to those of spousal violence. Thus, the combined costs of sexual assault and spousal violence is surely well past the $10 billion mark.

Let's talk alternatives.

Although the federal government has named violence against women as one of its priority areas, there is no coherent federal policy addressing violence against women at the moment. Federal spending on programs that address violence against women and girls is spread out across a number of departments and agencies and amounts to just over $56 million in total. To address a problem that costs more than $10 billion dollars a year and directly affects millions of Canadians.

This is a complex problem and one that requires multiple points of intervention. However, complexity is no excuse for incoherence or a lack of coordination. Nor is it an excuse for inadequate funding. Quite the opposite.

More than a dozen countries around the world have developed national action plans to address violence against women -- including governments with similar federal systems, such as Australia. The United Nations has called on all governments to have a national action plan to address violence against women by 2015. Analysis of the experiences of these countries demonstrates the effectiveness of a more coherent and coordinated strategy. They also suggest what a Canadian plan should look like.

To be effective, a Canadian National Action Plan to Address Violence Against women should include:

-  adequate human and financial resources earmarked specifically to carry out the program of action set by the plan;

-  clear benchmarks for measuring progress based on the collection of data on levels of violence against women over time;

-  meaningful and substantial participation by community and other civil society organizations, including adequate support for those organizations to participate in the implementation of the national action plan;

-  strategies that address the specific needs and vulnerabilities of different communities (such as women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, racialized women, young women);

-  initiatives to address socio-economic factors contributing to violence against women;

-  policies that work to prevent violence against women and policies that work to respond to survivors of violence.

Next month, a delegation of provincial and federal government representatives will attend the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women -- the theme of which is violence against women. Here's hoping they come back with a plan. Billions of dollars and millions of Canadians are counting on it.

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