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Femicide should be declared a national emergency in Canada: women's organization says

The Body Bag For Her is a campaign hoping to both raise awareness of the seriousness of femicide in Canada, and call for it to be declared a national emergency. (Aura Freedom) The Body Bag For Her is a campaign hoping to both raise awareness of the seriousness of femicide in Canada, and call for it to be declared a national emergency. (Aura Freedom)
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Femicide, which describes women and girls being killed purely for the crime of their gender, is on the rise in Canada—and one advocacy group is calling for it to be declared a national emergency.

The symbol is stark: a pink body bag.

“For her,” the slogan reads.

This powerful imagery is the core of a campaign launched by a Toronto-based organization to get femicide to be recognized on a national level, a move which would allow for more meaningful resources to be applied to address the issue.

Marissa Kokkoros, founder and executive director of the grassroots women’s organization Aura Freedom, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Tuesday that it’s time to say enough is enough.

“We've been screaming from the rooftops for decades,” she said. “No more. The lives of women and girls hold inherent value to society and every community.”

Violence against women is the "original pandemic," Kokkoros said, adding that the perpetrators are almost always intimate partners or family members.

"Around every two days in Canada, a woman or girl is murdered, most often by a man, and most often by a man she knows well."

This figure comes from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, which has partnered with Aura Freedom as well as the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto for this campaign to raise awareness of femicide in Canada. The statistic aligns with data released by Statistics Canada last spring, which found that gender-related homicides of women and girls have been on the rise since 2019, spiking to a new high in 2021.

Where a woman lives in Canada, as well as other aspects such as race, age, class and sexuality, can compound the risk of them being the victim of femicide.

“We see that with the higher rates of femicide in rural areas, higher rates of femicide among Indigenous women—the staggering rates among Indigenous women,” Kokkoros said.

A video released as part of the campaign shows a team of seamstresses and designers discussing the construction of a bag, with a smooth voiceover narrating the creative process overtop of images of women sewing and cutting pink fabric.

Only at the end of the video is it revealed to be a dark parody, as the result of the women’s work is revealed to have been a body bag.

 The campaign of the pink body bag plays on common imagery and language of sales pitches designed for women, with a poster for the campaign stating that this is the “bag that women are dying for”.

Aura Freedom launched the campaign this Thursday, along with a petition calling for a national emergency to be declared, ahead of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence which begins this Saturday on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

This international movement was started by activists in 1991, and occurs annually to try and spur new movement in the prevention and elimination of violence against women.

Although violence against women has long been acknowledged as a problem, the term “femicide” is not officially recognized in Canadian legislation, Kokkoros said.

Declaring it a national emergency would be a step towards being able to include it in the Criminal Code and craft specific taskforces or put funds towards solving it.

“If we can formally recognize femicide as a distinct form of violence, then we can begin to prioritize it,” she said.

“We can send a clear message that male violence against women and girls will not be tolerated any longer.”

In the past year, more than 50 cities and municipalities across Ontario have declared intimate partner violence and gender-based violence to be an epidemic, including Toronto, Sudbury, Hamilton and Kingston, among others.

This movement was spurred by the 2022 release of recommendations resulting from a public inquest into the 2015 triple murder of Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk by a former intimate partner.

One of the inquest’s recommendations was for the federal government to explore adding the term “femicide” and its definition to the Criminal Code so it could be used with relevant crimes.

ONE WOMAN KILLED EVERY OTHER DAY IN CANADA: INSIDE THE TERRIFYING RATES OF VIOLENCE

The rate of gender-related homicides in Canada has been increasing since 2019, according to the most recent Statistics Canada report, which was published in April.

Between 2020 and 2021, there was a 14 per cent increase in the rate of these murders, bringing it to the highest it’s been since 2017.

It’s important to note that this data only looks at solved homicides—meaning that the rates could be higher.

The pandemic only exacerbated domestic violence, Kokkoros said, since many women and girls found themselves trapped at home with their abusers, particularly earlier on in the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when more businesses and schools were shuttered.

“Women had solace at work, or girls in the home who are experiencing abuse could go to after school programs or their sports and get support, (and during COVID-19) were not able to access those services,” Kokkoros said. “And so of course, we saw violence against women increase, and we saw femicide increase as well.”

Statistics Canada did not use the term “femicide” in their data, but instead specified that a homicide of a woman or girl at the hands of a man was determined to be “gender-related” if it was either committed by a male intimate partner or male family member, involved sexual violence as part of the murder, or if the female victim was a sex worker.

Women are disproportionately killed by someone they know well, according to Statistics Canada, while homicides of men are usually committed by a more distant relationship, such as an acquaintance, friend or even a stranger. Out of 1,125 gender-related homicides reported by police between 2011 and 2021, two-thirds were committed by an intimate partner, while 28 per cent were committed by a family member. Just one per cent were committed by a stranger.

The rates of violence against Indigenous women are even higher than the national average. Statistics Canada reported that 21 per cent of all victims of gender-related homicides from 2011-2021 were Indigenous women and girls, even though this group comprises only five per cent of the female population in Canada.

“It's completely skewed,” Kokkoros said. “There's a lot of literature out there pointing to the disproportionate numbers of Indigenous women being murdered.”

She noted that the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered.

ADDRESSING THE EMERGENCY

In the April report, Statistics Canada identified that there was a lack of proper data in Canada to allow for a proper examination of the “underlying sociocultural or systemic factors” affecting the issue of gender-related homicide in Canada.

Being able to call it “femicide” and include that term in legislation would help to clear up that gap, advocates like Kokkoros believe.

“Violence against women has forever been seen as a private family matter,” she said. “It's just something that you don't talk about, it's not seen as a wider social issue that everyone is connected to, and that we can change.”

But the scale of this violence shows that it can’t be explained away as just the actions of individuals, but as a phenomenon ingrained in our society.

“Prevention efforts really must be focused on the root causes,” Kokkoros said. “(Femicide is) really the product of a society that has normalized this violence and has normalized violence against women. And they're the products of deeply rooted beliefs about men and women.”

She remarked that the increase in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric in Canada in recent years has contributed to the spectre of gender-based violence, which also victimizes those belonging to gender minorities outside of cisgender women and girls.

“We have seen an increase in violence against all women, and that includes trans women,” Kokkoros said.

“An increase in homophobia and transphobia, and an increase in misogyny and an increase in hate in general—these are all huge red flags and who often bears the brunt of male violence are women or feminized people, gender-diverse people.

“Patriarchy demands male violence, and homophobia and misogyny are all products of patriarchy.”

She added that for these campaigns to succeed, we need more men speak up in support of women’s rights and help be a part of the solution to end violence against women.

“Although not all men are violent, most violence against women comes from men. So it's not enough anymore to say, ‘Well, I'm not violent, so I'm good,’” Kokkoros said. “The most beautiful people are those who say, ‘this doesn't affect me directly, but I'm going to use my power and privilege to be part of the solution.’”

Aura Freedom has been part of consultations with the federal and provincial government to help create plans to address gender-based violence, and Kokkoros acknowledged that there is good work being done to try and address these issues.

In August, Justice Minister Arif Virani stated in a letter to Ontario's chief coroner that the federal government was "open" to criminalizing a pattern of behaviour known as coercive control which occurs in abusive relationships.

"Gender-based violence -- including intimate-partner violence -- is unacceptable and has no place in our country," he wrote.

The letter did not directly indicate whether the government was considering the recommendation to add "femicide" to the Criminal Code, although Virani stated the government agrees that "femicide is the most extreme form of violence and discrimination against women and girls."

Although she sees positive movement, Kokkoros finds that actual change can take a long time to be implemented, and she doesn't believe it reflects how much of an emergency the situation is.

“There's just never been the sense of urgency to address violence against women,” she said. “There's always something more important coming up when women in our communities are dying.

“We're still trying to get recognition that femicide is a thing. But femicide is real, it's happening in Canada, you know, ignoring it is not going to make it go away.” 

Correction

A previous version of the story incorrectly attributed a statistic to Statistics Canada. The figure originally came from the Canadian Femicide Observatory.

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