Older Women’s Dialogue Project: Surviving Violence, Calling for Change
October 12, 2017
BY Allison Curley
New Older Women’s Dialogue Project Tool Development Group
In early 2017, a new Older Women’s Dialogue Project (OWDP) tool development group was launched. In collaboration with Vancouver & Lower Mainland Multicultural Family Support Services Society, the Canadian Centre for Elder Law (CCEL) has been facilitating group meetings with women in the community who identify as older immigrants who have experienced violence or abuse. This OWDP work is funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, and legal information is being provided by Seniors First BC, the Law Students Legal Advice Program and other local community agencies.
The participants in the group range in age from their 50s to 80s, and came to Canada from diverse countries including Vietnam, Japan, India, Portugal and Poland. For some of the women, they left the abuse behind many years go. Many experienced abuse from a partner for a great number of years. For all of them, violence has significantly marked their lives and it now impacts their experience of aging.
The project’s participants have been tasked with developing a tool to help other women in the community. The purpose of this tool is to help mitigate circumstances where women face barriers to their well-being that are linked to surviving violence or abuse. Examples of tools could include a video, fact sheets, a petition, a post card campaign, or a workshop. You can take a look at our website to view examples of past tools developed by OWDP participants. Over the course of series of group meetings, the participants of this project have been talking about the barriers to their well-being, and carefully and thoughtfully considering what tool would help women most. The women involved with this project have courageously shared their stories and experiences to shed light on the issues that older immigrant women face when they’ve experienced violence or abuse.
The women meet regularly for 1.5 hours followed by a short learning session. After most meetings, a local advocate is available on site to provide legal information, advocacy or intake if a woman requires ongoing assistance with a legal issue. Legal assistance is a new addition to our OWDP work. We have found that the older women we work with often have urgent legal issues with which they require assistance, and sometimes these needs emerge from discussions about pressing barriers to well-being. In order to support women to focus on system change within the group meetings, we commit to helping them to find assistance to address their specific legal problems.
Barriers to Well-being
This project has so far involved speaking with the participants, and allowing them as a group to identify the most urgent barriers to their well-being. During consultation meetings, the women have been asked for focus on two questions:
- What are the pressing law and social policy issues impacting older women?
- What can we do to address these barriers to quality of life for older women?
The women’s comments revealed five fundamental barriers. They were:
- The family law system is harmful, not helpful. Women require better support from lawyers, judges and police in order to keep themselves and their children safe, and exercise their rights to property.
- There is not enough information on long term housing options for older women who have experienced abuse. There is a perception that BC Housing is the only option, and an unfair system.
- Legal aid funding is inadequate to meet their needs, especially if you cannot express yourself well in English and have experienced a lot of trauma.
- School aged children require education on abuse of women, and how to treat women with respect. The women felt that education of children and young people would be one of the most effective ways to reduce family violence.
- Employment assistance programs do not provide adequate assistance to older women. Women found that the agencies they are often required to work with in order to receive social assistance treat older women as though they are unemployable, and do not provide practical support or help with finding jobs and training.
The women have clearly articulated what stands between them and a better quality of life, landing on fundamental barriers that impact financial well-being and physical safety. After much discussion and voting the women narrowed the three top issues down to:
- The family law system is harmful, not helpful
- There is not enough information on long term housing options
- Employment assistance programs do not provide adequate assistance to older women
Before the women choose a tool to develop, they wanted to know more about existing tools, supports, and resources are available in the community. The CCEL and the participants want to avoid duplication as much as possible, so we at CCEL were tasked with speaking with community members about what is out there already.
In the remaining sections of this post, we:
- discuss each of the three identified barriers in greater detail;
- identify the target audience for a potential tool;
- describe existing resources, tools, and community supports related to the identified barrier; and
- set out some potential tool development opportunities the women could explore.
- Family Law System
The first identified barrier to well-being is with respect to the family law system. Participants described how the family law system creates barriers to well-being in many different ways. They asserted that the system is re-traumatizing as they are forced to re-live the violence they experienced, and they must face their abuser in court. The women described how their abusive former partners would still maintain control, and that they would exercise this control through the legal system. Participants spoke about how their former partners controlled the family’s assets, thus affording them the opportunity to retain a reputable lawyer, and putting the women at a disadvantage in court.
Participants further commented on some of the actors in the legal system, stating that they felt that judges did not believe them, and that lawyers did not care about them or seem to listen to their stories attentively. They explained that it was difficult to communicate with their lawyers, and when asked if it would be helpful to have an advocate present with them when they meet with their lawyer, the participants responded affirmatively. Many women seemed to need an advocate or counselor to emotionally support them through the often-lengthy legal process, as well as access to a helper who understood the law and the family legal process sufficiently to help them understand options and situate each legal proceeding within the larger context of their case and strategy.
Women indicated that lawyers sometimes gave them roles in helping to prepare for their own case as a method of reducing legal costs (this is related to the significant legal movement known as “unbundling”; however, many felt too traumatized and afraid of their ex-partners to help write affidavits or prepare for hearings. The trauma made it hard for them to express themselves well, especially when they felt a lack of trust from their lawyer. Women consistently reported feeling overwhelmed and fearful throughout the legal process.
The women described how it feels to be an older immigrant woman who has fled violence, and who is currently involved with the family law system. Participants described feeling unheard and vulnerable, and felt that they were not respected. During one consultation meeting, one participant noted that access to justice in family law is fundamental. Without it, it is difficult to attain a good quality of. She said that without the support of the legal system, you cannot get help with housing, employment, or anything else.
- Law Students
- Family law advocates
- Community-based victim services providers
Existing Community Resources, Supports and Tools
- “Roads to Safety: Legal Information for Older Women in BC”, Canadian Centre for Elder Law and West Coast LEAF (May 2016)
- Rise Women’s Legal Centre
- Ontario Women’s Justice Network and Family Law Education for Women (FLEW)
Possible Tool Development Opportunities
- Story-sharing, training, or a video presentation for judges or the Canadian Judicial Council
- Story-sharing, training, or a video presentation for lawyers
- Continuing professional development courses
- Canadian Bar Association section meetings
- Presentation or webinar for law students
- During a family law course
- During Professional Legal Training Course
- Training or a webinar for advocates
- Resource booklet distributed to community-based victim services providers
- Accessing Information on Housing
The second barrier to well-being identified by the women related to housing. In particular, the participants commented on how it is difficult to access information on how to obtain safe and affordable housing. The participants noted that it is especially challenging for immigrant women, as there may be language barriers and/or discrimination. There were inquiries on different types of housing, including co-op housing, BC Housing, transitional housing, and other alternatives to these options.
A number of the women told us that it is fundamental to have housing, especially after leaving a violent relationship, and that information on housing in BC should be more accessible. One participant stated that if a woman does not have anywhere to go, she may return to her abusive partner. Another participant spoke about how housing is everything, and that if a woman knows that she and her family are safe, the other pieces (like employment) will fall into place.
There was some confusion about how the BC Housing system worked, and a general perception that priority was given to applicants who knew someone within the system or who managed a particular building. Some women were not aware that other non-profits provided housing in BC, and that while BC Housing manages many building, it is not the only option. Other women lacked information on how to apply to co-ops. Frustration with BC Housing was very high.
Another topic of discussion pertaining to housing was in relation to safety and the women knowing their rights as tenants. One participant shared her experience of having an abusive landlord who would enter her place of residence whenever he wanted. She spoke about how this was re-traumatizing after leaving an abusive relationship.
Though a number of different issues were raised with respect to housing, the discussion often centred around the accessibility of information on housing. The women talked about how it is very hard to find housing because it is challenging to find information on housing options. Participants queried about alternatives to BC Housing, and noted that this information should be more readily accessible.
- Women who need information on housing
- People who support women
- Family and friends
- Community organizations
Existing Community Resources, Supports and Tools
- Tenant Resource & Advocacy Centre (TRAC)
- “Renting It Right” video
- Tenant’s Survival Guide
- Senior’s Services Society, “Types of Seniors Housing”
- City of Richmond, “Housing & Care: A Directory of Independent and Assisted Housing in Richmond”
- Richmond Rental Connect and Chimo Community Services
- Atira Women’s Resource Centre, “Promising Practices Across Canada for Housing Women Who Are Older and Fleeing Abuse”
Possible Tool Opportunities
- Booklet or pamphlet with information on different housing options
- Could be in languages other than English
- Could be distributed at a variety of locations (mosques, temples, churches, community-based organizations, recreation centres, schools, etc.)
- Educational seminars on housing options at community resource centres or transitional housing centres
- Presentation to housing services executives on the barriers that older immigrant women face when they’ve experienced violence or abuse
- Facebook page with links to housing options and information
- Radio announcements on a variety of radio stations
- Employment Training Programs
The third identified barrier to well-being related to employment. The women expressed their desire to find employment opportunities, and to acquire training and tools that would allow them to take advantage of these opportunities. Participants talked about how they had met with the workers from employment assistance programs, but that they were unhelpful, and that the workers did not demonstrate a genuine desire to assist the women in finding meaningful employment. Many of the women felt they were treated as though they not employable. They complained that the employment program providers were sometimes ill-equip to assist them; for example, some offices did not have a printer they could use to print resumés.
One participant suggested that transitional jobs should be available to them, so that when women leave violent relationships they can work in an environment that will support them in their transition. The women indicated that when a person has an income they have more security as well as more freedom, and that the ability to support themselves and their families is empowering.
The women would like people delivering employment and assistance services to appreciate that older women are worthy and capable of employment. They would like them to have the skills to support older workers.
- Agencies that provide employment assistance workers
- Program funders
Existing Community Resources, Supports and Tools
- YWCA Focus@Work employment program for women
- YWCA WorkBC LEADS (Learning Employment and Developmental Skills) employment program for survivors of violence
- Government of BC
- Employment Program of British Columbia
- Immigrant Services Society of BC
Possible Tool Opportunities
- Meet with agencies that offer employment assistance services to educate them on the barriers that older immigrant women who have experienced violence or abuse face
- Develop a training tool for front-line employment assistance workers identifying that kinds of support and assistance older women who have survived violence or abuse require
- Collaborate with employment agencies to develop workshops that can be delivered at transitional housing centres or community-based victims services centres
The women must now identify which issue they’d like to focus on, and how that issue can best be addressed—not an easy task because each of the above issues is fundamental and complex. We’ve asked them to think about who they want to reach in the community, and how their audience can best be reached. We are very much looking forward to working with this group of passionate and articulate women to help them develop a tool that will share their knowledge and experience, and make a difference.