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Why do so many people experience violence within close relationships? What can be done to prevent it?

According to the World Health Organization, close to 30 per cent of women worldwide report experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence from their intimate partner. Violence in all its forms, whether physical or sexual, emotional or financial, is experienced by women, men and children from people that they know at an alarming rate. Educators and healthcare providers consider the prevalence of relationship violence (RV) globally to be at pandemic proportions.  

Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies Jennifer Marchbank has researched RV around the world. An interdisciplinary scholar, Marchbank works closely with communities to explore social justice issues such as LGBTQ2SIA+ youth and elders; LGBTQ2SIA+ refugees and immigrants; refugee settlement; childcare and ‘mail order’ brides. She also co-founded and co-facilitates the award-winning activist group Youth for A Change. In 2022, she was recognized with a YWCA Women of Distinction Award in the category of Education, Training & Development for her impact as a researcher, educator and activist.

Marchbank is a member of the Network to Eliminate Violence in Relationships (NEVR), a community-based partnership that includes service and healthcare providers, educators, police, justice and government. NEVR is committed to eliminating violence in the community through education, awareness, advocacy and collaboration.

Marchbank recently collaborated with founder of NEVR and Kwantlen Polytechnic University nursing professor Balbir Gurm on a book that explores the complexities of RV and offers resources for service providers, educators and the public. Marchbank, BCIT forensic nursing professor Sheila Early and SFU Masters student Glaucia Salgado were lead authors. Several other members of the SFU community including Associate Vice-President External Relations Sobhana Madhavan and Director, Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office CJ Rowe also contributed to the project.

Making Sense of a Global Pandemic: Relationship Violence & Working Together Towards a Violence Free Society is open access and considered a living document. The project brings together a common understanding of RV across the lifespan and considers includes multiple perspectives. Published under a Creative Commons license, materials from the book have been made available for use in classrooms and to provide services.

We interviewed professor Marchbank to learn more about the book.

Based on your research and experience working within communities, do you have insights into why so many people experience violence within close relationships? Why is RV a concern in Canada?

In Canada, as elsewhere, relationship violence is unfortunately too common. Some of the factors for RV include social norms that normalize male violence as an aspect of masculinity; norms that accept some people have more power and privilege than others; and a general acceptance of violence as something that happens. Other factors include environments that can make people vulnerable, such as not being securely housed, community conflict and poverty—though RV occurs in all social classes. Those who have a history of abusing or being abused may come to accept that violence is normal.

One of the chapters you co-authored in the book discusses why survivors of RV don’t report it. Can you tell us some reasons why? Does this mean that RV remains under-reported?

About 70 per cent of domestic violence is never reported to the police, and even more alarming, only five per cent of cases of sexual assault in B.C. are reported to the police. There are so many reasons why survivors don’t report, ranging from fear to geographical location and access to services, to gender and age, to minority considerations, just to name a few.

According to the British Columbia Legal Society, women in abusive heterosexual relationships may not seek help because they believe or hope the abuse will end; the “make-up” period after violence reassures them or strengthens their emotional bond with their partner; they depend on their partner financially or to take care of them; they fear that their partner will become even more violent if they leave; they fear for the safety of their children and other loved ones; they fear their children will be taken into government care; they fear losing their home, losing face, or bringing shame upon their family.

Many victims are isolated from their family and friends, and part of the abuse may have been to ensure their isolation. They may not feel they have the support they need, they feel they will not be believed, or do not know their rights or the help that is available. Some are afraid of being deported, losing their immigration status or mistrust the legal system in general. The book chapter Why Survivors Don’t Report explains these factors in more detail.

Can you tell us about some of the intervention and prevention strategies to eliminate or reduce relationship violence in our communities? What needs to be done?

Locally, there is the Network to Eliminate Violence in Relationships (NEVR) who have developed several toolkits to support an evidence-informed response to preventing RV, including Early Childhood Exposure to Domestic Violence, the Community Champions Toolkit, and a Toolkit for Health Professionals. As well, several screening tools can be found on the NEVR website.

Primary prevention initiatives include strengthening strategies to prevent childhood exposure to RV, improving young people’s relationship skills, supporting the development of healthy community norms and non-violent environments. On a more macro level this includes prevention measures in legislation and policy and comprehensive data collection and monitoring systems.

Action to eliminate RV must be evidence-based and the evidence can come from multiple ways of knowing and be developed collaboratively from multiple lenses.

B.C. models that have had some success are the Interagency Case Assessment Team that brings together experts from partner groups and agencies to address high risk clients and the Domestic Violence Unit model that houses social workers and support workers with police.

The book chapter on Actions and Prevention of RV provides a range of recommended resources, including links to the National Collaborating Centre created by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Visit Making Sense of a Global Pandemic: Relationship Violence & Working Together Towards a Violence Free Society to read the book and access resources.

SFU's Scholarly Impact of the Week series does not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the university, but those of the scholars. The timing of articles in the series is chosen weeks or months in advance, based on a published set of criteria. Any correspondence with university or world events at the time of publication is purely coincidental.

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