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Young women in B.C. reported highest rates of domestic abuse in Canada

A new Statistics Canada survey shows that young women in B.C. reported the highest rates of violence by their intimate partners.

By Chhavi Mehra , in City , on April 4, 2023

Violet was 21 when she started dating her now-husband. A year later, she says, he began gaslighting her, starting fights and blaming her for his abusive behaviours. Violet, now 27 and a student at UBC, has felt threatened and hurt by her husband countless times and fears for her life and the safety of her unborn child.

“This leaves me in a rock and a hard place situation where I can’t actually build savings due to the high costs of living, and the fact that I never really had money to begin with. Now, I am pregnant … but I didn’t really think it through because I feel like I will be more dependent on my husband.”

Violet’s story is a common one especially in B.C.

A new first-of-its-kind report from Statistics Canada documented that young women in this province reported the most threats and physical violence compared to any of the 10 provinces, though the reasons for that remain unclear. In particular, about 66 per cent of women aged 15 to 24 in B.C. reported being coerced or intimidated, the highest among any age group. 

Unlike older women in B.C., who may have kept silent, women who were 15 to 24 reported violence at 28.31 per cent, up to nearly six times the rate of women who were 65 and older over a 12-month period.

Some of that may be related to a growing awareness of what constitutes abuse among the younger generation, according to experts.

“So if some people think they were verbally abused, a young person is much more likely to call that violence. Older generation would have just said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s normal for your husband to yell at you once in a while,’” said Siwan Anderson, who studies women experiencing relationship violence in India and parts of Africa.

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Young women across Canada were also nearly three times more likely to report that they experienced forms of coercive control (emotional, psychological or financial) during the 12 months preceding the survey. And blaming partners was the second leading form of emotional abuse. 

This is because an abusive relationship may not start immediately with physical force, said Karen Mason, co-founder and director of community practice for Supporting Survivors of Abuse and Brain Injury through Research.

Violet, whose identity is being protected by The Thunderbird, said that when the abuse first happened, she blamed herself and genuinely believed that her husband was helping her become a better person. 

“He made me feel like I was the worst person in the world and I did everything to change myself to make him happier. I ended up much more depressed and I gained a lot of weight, which he was upset about and blamed me further,” said Violet, who has tried to end her life a few times as a result. 

The abuse continued throughout 2020 and escalated to physical violence when Violet fully moved to Canada from the U.S. in 2022.

That pattern of abuse tends to start with just verbal aggression and then escalates is a typical pattern seen in psychologically abusive relationships. This could explain the high numbers of reporting for coercive control and abuse among young women, according to Mason.

“So it may be a strongly coercive controlling relationship. There may be verbal abuse and emotional abuse. Very typically, that eventually ramps up and turns into physical abuse … because that often does come next,” said Mason.  

However, the overall response by people who work with abuse survivors to the Statistics Canada report was mixed. 

They say the real numbers are even worse.

Because the survey was conducted in 2018 before COVID-19, the frontline workers say this report and even later police reports do not capture the volume of the violence that they are forced to confront in their work every day. 

Hilla Kerner, a frontline worker at the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, said that there are some serious gaps in all reporting of domestic violence like the fact that police reports often don’t distinguish between less and severe incidents of violence. She argued that surveys on domestic violence don’t give us enough nuanced information. 

“And it’s really different if a victim calls the abuser ‘stupid’ or the male abuser dehumanizes a woman by calling her stupid, like even the same word has a completely different context of who says it to whom … I think the research and publishing of the research is not nuanced enough.”