Sireesha Bobbili of CAMH and Ruth Rodney of York University led the qualitative component of a new report examining violence against women in Guyana. L to R: Sireesha Bobbili (CAMH), Honourable Lilian Chatterjee (Canadian High Commissioner to Guyana), Ruth Rodney (York University). Image credit: Carl Croker
Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women honours those who have experienced gender-based violence. The day commemorates the December 6, 1989 tragic shooting of 14 young women students at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal.
Thirty years on, gender-based violence continues to be a global epidemic. At least one in three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, which translates to more than one billion women worldwide. In Canada, 67 per cent of people reportedly know at least one woman who had experienced physical or sexual abuse. Every act of gender-based violence is one too many.
The first step in abating violence against women is to better understand the phenomenon, and several CAMH researchers are currently conducting work—both in Canada and around the world—to uncover its root causes.
Examining sexual violence against women in Canada
Sexual violence against women is a significant problem in Canada, with 60 per cent of university women reporting experiencing sexual assault since age 14. Alcohol-related sexual harassment and aggression in social drinking settings, such as bars and nightclubs, is a neglected but important and pervasive form of sexual violence. A study conducted by CAMH scientists, Samantha Wells and Kathryn Graham, found that at least 50 per cent of young adult women experienced sexual harassment or sexual aggression at a single night out at a bar or club. “Women are being catcalled, grabbed, touched, and groped in these environments,” said Wells. “Women are being negatively affected, yet very little is currently being done to prevent sexual aggression in these settings.”
Building on more than 20 years of research on male aggression in bars and clubs, Wells is currently examining the drinking culture in these establishments, with a focus on understanding men’s attitudes and beliefs that somehow make it normal and acceptable for men to engage in these behaviours. The study is also looking at peer dynamics and peer influence as factors affecting sexual aggression, including men’s willingness to act as bystanders when they witness other men’s sexual aggression.
“These experiences have immediate and long-term negative impacts on women, said Wells. “They make women distressed, feel disrespected, violated and fearful. Long-term impacts of sexual harassment, unwanted sexual contact and other forms of sexual objectification are also evident, including mental health and substance use problems.”
The knowledge gleaned from this research will be critical for developing policies and programs for improving how sexual aggression is prevented and managed in bars, and improving college educational and bystander programs.
Reporting on violence against women in Guyana
CAMH researcher Sireesha Bobbili has been exploring global mental health issues for nearly 10 years. She has collaborated with academics, clinicians and governments in various countries, to explore comprehensive, systems-based solutions to address mental illness and substance use problems. Bobbili’s recent research has focused on violence against women in Guyana, a devastating human rights issue which affects women of all ages, ethnicities, educational and income levels.
Bobbili, together with Ruth Rodney of York University, contributed towards the first comprehensive national prevalence study on violence against women in Guyana, which was funded by UN Women, the United Nations Development Programme, USAID and the Inter-American Development Bank. Results of the Guyana Women’s Health and Life Experiences Survey Report were released in November and suggest that 55 per cent of Guyanese women have experienced at least one form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
“As a Canadian-South Asian woman of colour, I feel fortunate to have been born and raised in a country that promotes gender equality. Women in Guyana are faced with different realities, said Bobbili. The qualitative study results show that gender inequality is at the root of violence against women. Men and women are afforded different opportunities, privileges and power based on perceived, not necessarily true, differences.”
Bobbili suggests we all have a role to play to tackle violence against women: “As a first step, we need to acknowledge that gender inequality is at the root. We need to examine the gender norms that we hold and understand their influence on our interactions with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. We need to be more mindful of the example we’re setting for younger generations through our language and the type of media that we absorb. We need to hold each other accountable.”
Wells echoed this point, noting, “Gender bias, gender roles and gender norms are so pervasive we don’t see them; it’s time for all of us to do our part and raise the bar on gender equity.”