Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this debate.
This issue is very important to me. I am very concerned about violence against all women in Canada. This is my first speech as the NDP critic for status of women, and this is a very relevant issue that is all about violence against women.
This is now the most important issue facing women in Canada and around the world. There is still so much work to do to achieve equality, and one of the first things we have to do is end this violence for the sake of all women. It is very important to take a holistic approach and to recognize that social inequality, which affects all women, is the cause of this violence.
Let us start, though, by speaking about and understanding what forced marriage is in Canada. I will read some of the great work that has been done on the issue of violence against women in the form of forced or non-consensual marriage, because I think it will give us a good idea of what it is to live in a forced marriage.
This is from the report entitled, “Report on the Practice of Forced Marriage in Canada: Interviews with Front Line Workers”, prepared by Nai'ma Bendriss, presented to the Department of Justice in November 2008:
Although contrary to the law and an infringement of human rights under international law, forced marriage is most often the repetition of a cultural practice and a significant part of matrimonial traditions in families which practice it.
A marriage is regarded as forced when the people who bring it about are not concerned about the consent of the individuals involved and put pressure on them in order to achieve their goal. Violence is always present, whether verbal, psychological or physical, and mainly targets young women. Because it is a taboo, this practice is still greatly underestimated if not completely ignored in Canadian society, and victims keep it a secret so as not to bring public disgrace to their families. The secrecy is heightened by the fact that the situation occurs in private.
It further states:
...women who are in a position of dependency and a relationship of subordination with their husbands because they have been sponsored by them. This situation can hinder women’s independence and strengthen the spouse’s hold over them and thereby create an unequal relationship. This is the case with many women who met our respondents, who were married against their will and sponsored by their spouse and who, in addition, are victims of conjugal violence, making their lives a series of painful events [that] can leave them increasingly vulnerable.
It goes on to state:
Because...they are vulnerable because they are in a dependent situation precisely as a result of their status as a sponsored family member, which ties them to their husbands and can be used by the husbands for all sorts of blackmail, threats and humiliation.
Bill S-7 would further chip away at these women's opportunities. This legislation would greatly exacerbate the problem, in other words, and I want to talk about why and why the government needs to understand the issue better.
It happens far too often now that we throw legislation at a problem and say, “We've changed the rules. This is now in the Criminal Code, this is now illegal and, therefore, the problem is solved”.
In this particular case, there are already Criminal Code routes to address this. It is not as though one cannot be prosecuted for beating one's wife just because it happens to be an honour killing or because it a case of a forced marriage. Those are still prosecutable crimes. They are not changed based upon where one comes from. That is something to keep in mind.
However, I wonder if this is really what this is about, because we recently heard comments by the Prime Minister singling out niqab-wearing women and antagonizing them, which is simply a way of dividing and singling people out and creating a national debate about something that really should not be happening, when we really should be working on empowering people rather than antagonizing them and creating and “us and them” narrative. This “us and them” mentality, this idea that violence against women is barbaric in some cultures, is simply unfortunate, because it seems to imply that if it is not part of a cultural community or something done by new immigrants, then it is simply some bad choice or not something systemic or societal. That is something I cannot support. I think it is incredibly important to ensure that we look at all forms of violence against women, no matter which community someone comes from.
Experts who came before the Senate committee and studied Bill S-7 told us that criminalization is not enough to solve the problem and that it will have the opposite effect and exacerbate the problem. While survivors and victims rarely choose to take legal action in cases of forced marriage, a number of provisions in the Criminal Code already provide legal recourse with regard to the offences named in this bill.
Instead of politicizing the issue of gender-based violence, the government could and should strengthen the legislative measures already in place and invest in the organizations that provide services on the ground, where the real work is done. I sincerely believe that we need to have a national action plan to end violence against women, because violence exists in every community.
The short title of this bill, the zero tolerance for barbaric cultural practices act, is truly xenophobic. It isolates a community, calling it barbaric for its violence against women. This is a problem that exists everywhere. It does not make sense to target one community in particular. It is an extremely serious problem that we all experience, and we should do everything we can to stop it. However, it is racist to isolate a community in this way. This title reinforces the prejudices against certain cultural groups by targeting them. We have to address the problem as a whole instead of marginalizing these women.
As I said, current legislation sufficiently addresses the issue. Civil and common provincial laws require marriage to be entered into with free and enlightened legal consent. Canadian criminal law provides recourse relevant in most cases involving force, minors, threats, abduction, confinement, sexual offences, et cetera. Further, Canada is a signatory to multiple international treaties, including CEDAW, which is the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. These are already things that we are doing.
Of course we need to reinforce these things. That means we need to help shelters and organizations that work with communities and women on the ground. That is how we do that. We give tools to law enforcement. We give tools like legal aid, and we give mental health and health services as well. Simply going about it in having a law that specifically targets one community is a one-track way of doing it and it is not looking at the whole problem in totality.
Further, criminalization would prevent individuals from seeking help. It would marginalize the women. Over and over, we have heard front-line workers and women and girls saying that they do not want protection from police, that they do not want to prosecute their parents and family, and that they do not want to see them go to jail.
We need to keep what they are asking of us in mind. We need to listen to these women. They will often withdraw charges rather than see someone in their family prosecuted. I completely acknowledge that it is a difficult situation, but we do need to work with them. We need to recognize that where there is the desire to prosecute, those laws are there and if there is no desire, then we still need to find a way to intervene. That is why a national strategy is important.
They may often also be financially or otherwise dependent on the person who is violent toward them. They may be afraid of the repercussions of revenge by other family members, or something like that, or other people in the community.
Victims have reported that being forced to break up family ties forever can lead to rejection, stigma, ostracization, a sense of shame and dishonour, and depression. We need to keep all these things in mind.
I want to quote from the testimony given by Hannana Siddiqui, head of policy and research in the United Kingdom, during the Senate hearings. A women's minority organization called Southall Black Sisters works on the needs specifically of black and minority women who face gender-based violence in the UK. Dr. Siddiqui said:
We obviously wanted to condemn forced marriage as a practice within communities, but we disagreed on the need to criminalize it. The problem for us was that we worked directly with survivors and victims. A lot of them are girls and young women who say to us, “I do want protection from the police, but I don't want to prosecute my parents or my family. I don't want to see them go to jail.” They clearly said that if they went to the police and they were going to prosecute, then they would withdraw their charges...I think the concern was that the whole problem of forced marriage would be driven underground, particularly at a time when we were trying to encourage victims to come forward. The other thing victims said was that if you criminalize it, then it may mean that they have to break up family ties...
That is important to keep in mind. This is from someone who has been through the legislative process in the United Kingdom saying that this is exactly what is happening in this debate.
Furthermore, this legislation is inherently racist, as I said. Treating violence toward immigration women specifically as somehow being more barbaric than any other kind of gender-based violence is simply ridiculous because all violence should be considered unacceptable. Therefore, specifying “particularly” is really just adding a racist dimension to it. This makes it a cultural problem rather than a gender one, which is what it really is, therefore making us forget that we need to tackle it in all communities.
It is also important that I quote from the FEWO committee. Just two weeks ago Dr. Deepa Mattoo appeared before us. She said:
—it's not only marginalizing women, it's also marginalizing the communities they come from and targeting certain communities more so. I think it takes us away from the discourse and the reality that violence against women happens across cultures and across people's historical backgrounds, and more so when there has been a history of colonization and there has been a history of marginalization of other kinds.
Not considering violence against women a holistic issue and coming up with the discourse that there is some kind of barbaric culture in certain communities and new immigrants are necessarily more violent than people living here in Canada I think is very problematic.
As I mentioned as well, it also drives people further underground because they do not know what to do. They cannot come forward and prosecute because they do not have the resources in the community and the services to help them. The only option they have is to send a family member to jail, which would result in a very difficult situation for the individual in the community.
This bill would also politicize the issue. That is what we would be doing. Like I said, it is this us and them mentality. This is a cultural problem. It is not a gender problem. It is not something we all need to be addressing. It is specific to this community. That is very problematic as well.
It is also important to mention the lack of work or consultation with stakeholders. It does not listen to women, to survivors. It does not listen to their story, and that is also incredibly important to point out.
While the bill purports to protect and support vulnerable individuals, arguing that these practices exist as a result of immigration and that the government is committed to ending it, it is really a problem that is gendered.
In the time I have left, I want to talk about violence against women.
Violence against women happens all across Canada and around the world. The United Nations defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. That can include, and this is very serious stuff we are talking about, physical abuse such as slapping, choking, punching, using hands or objects as weapons, threatening with a gun, a knife and committing murder. That is physical abuse.
Sexual abuse is using threats, intimidation or physical force to force women into unwanted sexual acts.
Emotional or verbal abuse is threatening to kill, whether it be the woman, her children, her loved ones, or pets: threatening to commit suicide; making humiliating or degrading comments about her body or behaviour; forcing her to commit degrading acts; isolating her from friends or family; confining her to the house; destroying her possessions; and other actions designed to demean or restrict her freedom and independence.
There is financial abuse such as stealing or controlling her money or valuables. This is particularly a problem with regard to older women. Forcing her to work or denying her the right to work is also including in this.
There is also spiritual abuse such as using religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate, dominate or control.
Criminal harassment and stalking is considered violence against women, following, watching in a persistent, malicious and unwanted manner, which is important to underline, and invading privacy in a way that threatens personal safety.
There are so many ways in which violence against women exists in our society, and who is affected? All women are affected, young women, elderly women, working women, mothers, teachers, sex workers, CEOs, members of Parliament, indigenous women particularly and immigrant women as well because they face these double whammies of racism and sexism. That is why, when we look at intersecting a violent problem, we need to do it in a lens that is all-encompassing toward ending violence against women. It happens as much to women in Toronto as it does in rural Saskatchewan, so we really need to look at it holistically.
This is what we need to do, and I want to cite Deepa Mattoo one more time. When they started to work on the issue, she said:
—one thing that we have been clear about is that it is part of the continuum of violence against women and nothing else. It should be dealt with within that same framework. We were never wanting it to be dealt with any differently....we wanted the systems to be sensitive and alive to the issue of the distinct experiences of the women who faced this form of violence, but we wanted it to be included in the violence against women framework. But unfortunately it has been somehow discussed in a way...and we know there's Bill S-7 that is on the table at this point as well.
There is an assumption that is coming that somehow the current legal system does not have enough in it to address this issue, whereas our education from our clients, the survivors, and our education from the communities, very much tells us that the existing systems and the structures are enough to serve the needs of the population if they want to access the law and justice in that way. Unfortunately, I think we haven't learned enough from what we see, that women don't necessarily want to report.
We need to support those communities. We need legal aid. We need to listen to the women who come forward. We need to consult our stakeholders that are able to list recommendations of specifically what needs to be done, and that includes supporting women when they do immigrate to Canada. This means really ensuring that economically, socially, physically and politically, women are equal, all of us, and that means structurally, helping out the organizations on the ground and really listening to women.