Marlene Brookes had stopped for a coffee on her way to work one morning in August 2004, when she was shot at by her husband. She had been living in a secret location in Toronto, and had initiated divorce proceedings against her violent husband Sugstan Anthony Brookes. Fortunately, Marlene survived the attack.
Aysegul Candir however, was not so lucky. The schoolteacher succumbed to the bullets fired by her husband Erhun Candir in the parking lot of a high school in Greater Toronto. She too had decided to end her marriage.
Spousal assault and homicide (targeting women) has been on the increase in Canada. A total of 86 cases of spousal homicide were reported in 2001, up from 68 in 2000, the first increase since 1995. In Ontario province alone, the number of men accused of killing their current or ex-wife rose from 52 in 2000 to 69 in 2001. Although homicide (in Canada) decreased in 2002 to 70, and in 2003 to 64, spousal violence itself has been maintaining a steady incline over the past few years.
Criminal harassment by a spouse - which often precedes more serious crimes including murder - jumped an alarming 53 per cent between 1995 and 2001. In 2002, women accounted for 85 per cent of reported cases of family violence. The 2004 Statistics Canada report says that women between 25 to 34 years of age experienced the highest rates of spousal violence.
As in the case of Brookes and Candir, violence is not restricted to married or common law (couples living together) partners. According to police records, approximately one-third of the women experience violence at the hands of an ex-spouse and this includes actions such as repeated phone calls, leaving threatening voice messages and mails, and stalking.
Ironically, this means that many women put their lives in peril when they decided to end a relationship. "In Canada, the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is the time when she decides to leave, so the majority of them who are killed, are killed when they have either given notice that they intend to leave or when they actually try to leave. The danger continues up to two years after separation," says Marsha Sfeir, Executive Director of the Toronto-based organization, Education Wife Assault.
Statistical research bears this out. A Statcan report states, "between 1991 and 1999, separated women were killed by estranged partners at a rate of 39 per million couples, while the rates for those living with current common-law partners and current husbands was 26 women per million couples and five women per million couples respectively."
And for every woman like Candir who are reduced to homicide statistics, there are many like Brookes who manage to survive but are emotionally, physically and mentally scarred forever. Testimonies by many survivors to various government and non-government panels are a chilling pointer to the threat posed by ex as well as present spouses. And such cases have led to a re-examination of the various facets of violence against women and the need for a differential response based on the threat to her life. The evolution of risk assessment tools and techniques to assess a woman's situation is a step in this direction.
Among the recently developed tools is a risk-assessment formula developed by a Desmond Ellis, senior scholar at York University in Toronto. Known as DOVE (Domestic Violence Evaluation), the formula is designed to assess the risk of violence against women who leave their partners. It has a list of 15 factors that can be used to predict violence. These include physical or emotional abuse in the past, serious physical and emotional injury to the woman, whether a woman has left her home because of abuse, whether a woman is really afraid of her partner, and if a partner has threatened to harm or kill her.
The formula incorporates a safety plan and ranks a woman's former partner as being a low, medium to high risk for continued violence. The safety plan is worked out with abused women so as to protect them and their children.
At the same time, better response tools are also being developed for women who are living in abusive relationships. Says Vivien Green of Woman Abuse Council (WAC), Toronto, "Fifteen years ago, I would say every domestic violence case is a potential homicide. That may still be true but we are starting to distinguish between abuse cases, as there is a need for differential responses. We know that all abuse is horrific but there are some indictors that can be matched with lethality or what we call potential homicide. Now we are looking at assessment and questions you can ask about identifying risk factors or lethality."
The high-risk response model that WAC has developed is implemented by its associated agencies that work directly with women in crisis. "The impetus for the project," says Green, "was the 1999 murder of Sandra Quigley by her boyfriend of two years. Three member agencies of WAC had been involved with Quigley and felt her death could have been prevented. Her murder and the circumstances surrounding it were hardly unique."
The model's goal is to protect and save women's lives by intervening in situations posing significantly high risk of death or serious injury to the victim, says Green. The model has two tools for risk assessment, the first of which is a list of 15 indicators of high risk - like utterances of threats of homicide and suicide, the presence of weapons in the house or plans to acquire weapons by the abuser. The second is a questionnaire - 35 questions that indicate the presence or absence of high risk factors.
However, it is not enough to merely assess risk. "Any accountable response must include both the containment of men who may kill their intimate partners as well as emergency safety planning strategies with women at risk," Green emphasizes.
According to Green, much more coordination is required between various government and non-government agencies such as the police, the judiciary and non-governmental organizations.
Green and other activists also stress on the need for more subsidized day care, housing and greater employment. "It is important to look at abuse in the larger context of poverty," says Green.
A disturbing trend in the past few years is that agencies are seeing women staying longer in abusive relationships. Adds Green, "If a woman has no place to stay and no means to support herself and children (if any) she is forced to stay in a violent relationship."