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WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.
The names and identities of the victims in our stories have been changed to protect them.
Their stories and circumstances aren’t unique. Thousands more are being silenced as their trauma continues daily behind closed doors. These are just some of their first-hand accounts.
If you would like to view this story in Punjabi, click here.
You never know what’s happening behind closed doors. For some, home can be the most dangerous place to be, where terror reigns.
Anita is one of those women: a mom, protector and a victim of violence who was told over and over again to patiently live through it.
But it was her five-year-old who broke the silence to his teacher at school, shocking Anita.
She said his teacher pulled her aside and asked if something was going on in her life or in their home.
His teacher had told her that her son made concerning comments in class, saying, “This happens to my mom, my father does this and my mother cries, my mother’s face is injured.”
Until this point, Anita was unaware of the depth the impact of the abuse she was dealing with was affecting her son. It empowered her to tell her story, hoping other women in similar situations would know they’re not alone.
Anita has been abused by her husband since before she had her son five years ago. She followed the man she loved to Canada without immigration status, leaving her uniquely vulnerable, and after she gave birth, the violence began.
She says what started out as emotional abuse, has since escalated to repeated physical abuse.
“The day I was physically abused for the first time – I thought about leaving this hell and starting over with a new life. I deserve it, I know my son deserves to live in a positive, good environment too,” said Anita.
But it wasn’t that easy.
A number of factors are preventing Anita from leaving her potentially life-threatening situation.
To begin with, she was a newcomer to Canada without legal status and little support from family friends, many who told her the abuse was her doing.
“They silenced me then. Saying no, women shouldn’t talk back. What happens to you happens because you contradict him,” said Anita.
At one point, three years into the abuse, she contacted her family to ask if she would be able to return to her home country and they refused.
“They said, ‘Your son will be ruined, there’s nothing for him here in this country, he’s Canadian. Be patient, be careful, do what your husband says’,” she said.
Anita said her husband would also threaten that he would take their son, a Canadian citizen, away from her and leave her with no financial support.
“How will I lead my normal life? I didn’t have status so how could I apply for government support? For what? That’s what kept me from taking action, or leaving that life, that house, that man,” she said.
The privilege of choice
Nina Gorka, the Director of Shelters, Girls and Family Programs from the Arise Shelter, which is a free shelter run by YWCA specifically for women and children fleeing abuse, says these women who don’t have status in Canada, employment or a support system are often forced to remain with the abuser because they don’t have the privilege of choice.
“It’s a privilege to choose something and people with privilege have choice and it doesn’t take us very far to scratch the surface just a little bit down to say, who has choice to leave?” said Gorka.
She says those who don’t have the freedom of choice are often more vulnerable and “more susceptible to violence because of that vulnerability.”
Gorka added they have seen incidences of an abuser withholding whatever identification a woman might have, leading to, in some cases, them being forced to leave the country.
“We see some of those women get sent back to their home countries, that’s a flaw in the system. Where is the choice in that situation?”
Anita says the abuse has left her with little confidence and very nervous, far from the woman she came to Canada as.
According to experts, many women tolerate violence from within and do not report it anywhere.
Fewer than one in five women have reported violence by a partner to police, according to Statistics Canada. Even fewer tend to report their abuser if it’s a family member.
Anita has also worried about the impact of the abuse on her son who she says grew up watching it happen.
“I heard from afar, ‘No one can save you today’.”
Anita recalled one incident in which her son witnessed his father attacking her over a minor disagreement.
“I heard from afar, ‘No one can save you today.’ I ignored this. But when I turned around, I was attacked from behind. He started to hit me and swear at me.”
She was rescued by her tenants who intervened as she got a bloodied face, and remembers seeing her son crying and screaming in the corner before retreating to his room out of fear.
It was the first time she remembers him reacting to an incidence of abuse.
When his teacher addressed her situation, she said she felt relieved that he knew the difference between right and wrong and was able to identify what was happening to his mother was wrong.
Recognizing the signs of abuse in school
Schools can be safe havens for kids who see and experience violence at home and educators are critical front line staff who are trained to pick up on the warning signs.
Rachpal Gill, a teacher of over two decades, has seen situations like this firsthand. She says school staff receive annual training to know when it’s time to call on authorities, including Children’s Aid Society (CAS).
“Sometimes a child can tell you directly, or sometimes indirectly. Based on the behaviour of the child, actions of the child … You can consult CAS if you are not sure without giving the name of the child [to find out] if there is enough grounds to report it,” said Gill, a former educator with the TDSB.
So if you feel that the child is experiencing some kind of abuse … physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and also neglect too. We can consult CAS, but it is our duty to report,” said Gill.
That’s been a key challenge during the pandemic, as educators don’t have as many opportunities to recognize the signs of abuse while teaching virtually, prompting fears.
“Maybe there is more child abuse but we don’t have direct contact, we don’t hear directly. If there is [anything] physical, any bruises, we can’t notice that through the computer,” added Gill.
There is also no opportunity for children to confide in their teachers when they are learning virtually. “It’s a more challenging time, not only for us, but for the children too to come out and say how they are feeling and what is happening.”
“The worst hasn’t happened yet, but it could.”
The incident in which Anita’s son reacted to the abuse was the same one that prompted her to pick up the phone and call the police for the first time.
“I went to the mirror to see what had happened to me. When I saw my face in the mirror, I felt sorry for myself and said, ‘Enough. Today is my last day. The worst hasn’t happened yet but it could’,” said Anita.
Her first attempt to call the police was thwarted by her husband but, a little while later, she was able to actually place a call.
However, as soon as she spoke to the police, doubts slipped into her mind.
She said she asked the police what would happen if she didn’t file a complaint.
“The police said to me, if you don’t take action for yourself today, if you don’t take a stand, maybe next time we’ll come to collect your body from the house. You’re doing the right thing, speaking up for yourself, getting justice for yourself. Think about your son. Next time – we’re opening a file, but next time we’ll come to collect your body if you hang up now.”
The challenges with leaving
Anita is now a legal resident in Canada, but as a stay-at-home mom, her husband still has the upper hand including when it comes to their finances.
“He started talking to some close, common friends, saying “I’ll force her to prostitute herself, because I’ll stop giving her money to spend. I’ll force her to beg for scraps from door to door.”
Shiba Anjum is Operations Manager at Nisa Homes in Mississauga, an organization that serves as a transitional home to newcomers to Canada and women of Muslim descent. The number of people receiving help from Nisa Homes has increased 10 times in the last five years alone, and the organization’s services are now available at six locations across Canada.
While offering asylum from precarious situations, the organization helps women with everything from securing childcare, finding jobs, and getting government financial support. Anjum says they work to help more women on the basis of cultural sensitivity tailored to their circumstances, who often need additional help navigating the services available to them.
“For these women, the shelter system’s ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work, .. these women are escaping an abusive situation and landing in another abusive situation.”
Anjum said when it comes to housing, the wait list for affordable housing is seven to 10 years in Toronto alone, and five to seven years in other surrounding communities. She adds there is also a stigma in many communities when it comes to single women living on their own.
They can view up to a hundred properties before finding a suitable one, and then they are required to answer questions about their marital status, financial situation, job letters and even advance payment of rent, said Anjum.
In terms of employment, their circumstances tend to leave these women to part-time jobs with low incomes and no benefits. “And if you miss one shift, you lose your jobs. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating … They need high incomes in order to survive in the GTA.”
She says these realities can prevent women from leaving potentially dangerous situations.
“Daddy please, don’t shout at mom.”
“When they see the reality check of what it looks like, sometimes they think ‘I think I’m better where I am’,” said Anjum.
Anita still lives with her husband and child, as well as his parents. She’s now a legal migrant, but feels paralyzed doing minor things like walking to the post office to mail a letter. But there’s a ray of hope as her son grows up.
She says a few days after she spoke with his teacher when she and her husband were having a discussion in which he raised his voice, her son reacted, saying, “Daddy please, don’t shout at my mom.”
“I felt really proud that my son supported his mother. But more than that, he spoke up against something that was wrong. He sided with the right thing, that what is happening to his mom is wrong,” Anita said. “I discussed it with him. I told him not just with me – but if you see anyone shouting at someone else, or hitting someone, go look for help. This is wrong.”
With files from Mahnoor Yawar and Loveen Gill