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María José Yax-Fraser: We cannot continue to ask for a minute of silence

Halifax not so silent vigil 2017. Photo Facebook

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Over the years, I have questioned the idea of observing a minute of silence as part of memorials to remember the loss of women’s lives as a result of misogyny and gender-based violence. 

I came to Canada in august 1989 as an international student three months before the Montreal Massacre to study theology –a predominantly man’s field.

Like many Canadians, I was shocked to the core by the shooting at l’École Polytechnique. The tactic to separate women from men and meticulously slaughter women, a suicide letter that included a “hit list” of 15 prominent Quebec women, the tendency of state institutions to look away and not conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, sent shivers down my spine.

Today, it is important to highlight that the Montreal Massacre was a political anti-feminist act that used feminicide to terrorize women back into a submissive silent place. It was an anti-feminist act against the mobilization of the women’s movement and the victories won.

The Canadian state has struggled to acknowledge that in such a progressive place gender-based violence exists. It took the shooting of 14 engineering students for the Canadian government to recognize that violence against women was an epidemic. It took three more years to develop a Plan of Action on Violence Against Women to increase women’s equality and reduce violence against women through government policy. And it took many more years to acknowledge the cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, and the failure of the justice system to protect women.

The silence around misogyny and gender-based violence is not only a Canadian reality. Patriarchal nations and international governing bodies like the United Nations have been slow in recognizing the scale of feminicide and gender-based violence against women and girls nationally and around the world. 

It was not until 1995 -in great part as a result of the mobilization of community based women’s organizations- that 189 governments came together At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and adopted a Platform for Action that spelled out key strategies to end violence against women, empower women, and achieve gender equality. I remember this moment. I participated along other Nova Scotian women during the Beijing preparatory meetings. 

It was not until 1999 that the United Nations officially recognized November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, 18 years after Latin American and Caribbean activist had begun to mark the day to combat and raise awareness of violence against women which manifests in physical, sexual and psychological forms. 

The fact is that misogyny is the root cause of violence against women around the world. Women and girls are subjected to sexual abuse, rape, child and forced marriage, sexual slavery and trafficking, domestic violence and other forms of violence. At times of war, rape has been used as a weapon of war

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. 25.9 million refugees, and millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights. It is estimated that about 50 percent of the world’s refugees are women and girls. Countless women and children are fleeing because of gender-based persecution and violence. 

Last year, an investigation conducted by CBC revealed that one in six female asylum seekers in Canada was fleeing persecution because she was a woman. Women said they were fleeing forced marriage, female genital mutilation, non-domestic sexual violence, and non specified abuse. Half of these women were fleeing abusive partners or family members.

Under Strategic Objective E.5 the Beijing Platform for Action has called for consideration to recognize sexual violence or other gender-related persecution. 

Historically, though, the definition of a refugee has been interpreted through a framework of male experiences. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees considers refugee to be a person who had a well-founded fear for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and whom the state is unwilling or unable to protect. But it does not mention gender. Policy makers did not take into account marginalized women’s experiences of persecution. They were mostly white men and two or three white women and privileged people.

It was not until 1991 that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) adopted Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women, in keeping with the UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women developed a year earlier. 

Agreeing that “women’s rights are human rights”, invoking the principle of equality found in Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and taking into consideration the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Canada expanded the criteria of who a refugee is to include women fleeing persecution on the basis of gender. In 1994 Canada became the first country to issue guidelines on refugee women claimants fleeing gender-related persecution. 

Since then, the recognition of gender-related violence has become relatively well established in Canada’s refugee determination system and in other countries.

Thousands of women have successfully claimed refugee status in Canada due to domestic violence. 

Yet women seeking asylum on the basis of gender-related and domestic violence still face significant challenges in proving that returning to their home country will present a significant risk to their safety. If married to a Canadian citizen or if they have migrated sponsored by their partners, refugee claimants face increasing barriers to access legal resources and may experience invisible homelessness.

They may also face significant hurdles in establishing that the nation from which they are fleeing is incapable or unwilling to provide protection from the severe threat they face. 

The CBC investigation I mentioned previously, showed that female asylum seekers were slightly more likely to have their claims accepted than males. However, women who cited gender persecution as a cause for their claim were less likely to have their claims accepted than people fleeing for political, religious or ethnic reasons.

Their refugee claims are often jeopardized because they may be afraid to tell of their experiences of sexual violence, they may be unwilling to speak of such experiences in front of their husbands, or they may be intimidated by the presence of male officials, interpreters and refugee judges. 

Studies have demonstrated that adjudicators from the Refugee Protection Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board often fail to follow the Gender Guidelines. Many fail to meaningfully engage with the complex social, cultural, economic, and policing dynamics that impact on how survivors of domestic violence are able to seek state protection; i.e. many of them have yet to approach their position of power from a trauma informed perspective. 

A recent example is the case of Halima Alari who during her hearing at Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board in April was asked by judge Yonatan Rozenszajn, who did not believe her story, to explain to him “why her husband didn’t just kill her if he really wanted her to be gone”.

Legal experts suggest that a great number of refugee claimants are conditioned not to talk about abuse and sexual violence, and rape in particular. 

A number of structural barriers exist for immigrant and migrant women fleeing violence. They face additional difficulties due to language and literacy barriers; limited knowledge of Canadian systems, laws and policies; precarious citizenship status; limited support system; and non-eligibility to services due to their status, stigma and family dynamics. 

As a multicultural society we are still learning the intersectional dynamics that shape how women respond to experiences of gender-based violence -culture, nationality, citizenship status, gender, racialization and so forth. We are still learning to embrace the different ways in which people mourn and commemorate the loss of lives of women as a result of gender-based violence.

The tactic of silence has a long history when it comes to gender violence in its many forms.

We have been asked to be silent for too long and silence generates more violence. 

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in 2018 an average of 137 women and girls were killed by a partner or family member every day. In Canada, a woman or girl is killed every 2.5 days.

We cannot continue to ask for a minute of silence for the women who have been murdered and for those who are missing. We need to scream for systemic change. As Ana Gatica an indigenous Nahua woman from Guerrero Mexico calls out, to request a minute of silence, for each murder and each disappearance in Canada, in Turtle Island, in Abya Yala, in the world is to ask us to remain silent eternally. We cannot be silent. Silent NO more!

María José is Chair of the Immigrant Migrant Women’s Association of Halifax and a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at York University.

Note: With a special thanks to John Fraser who proofread an earlier version of this article.

See also: María José Yax-Fraser: Racism where you least expect it

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