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Why are young women at higher risk of becoming victims of domestic violence?

A woman is killed by her partner every six days in Canada. A large per cent of those victims are young women.

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While domestic violence remains a huge problem across the country, the recent violent deaths of three Quebec women at the hands of their ex-boyfriends serves as a painful reminder that young women are particularly at risk.

Mylène Laliberté was 24 years old when her ex-boyfriend stabbed her to death. Daphné Boudreault was 18 when she met the same fate a mere two months later.

Gabrielle Dufresne-Élie was only 17 when she was strangled by her ex-boyfriend while trying to end the relationship. In all three cases, the violence was eerily similar, involving young women attempting to break off relationships with men who had previously shown possessive behaviour.

According to information obtained by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a woman is killed by her partner every six days in Canada. A large per cent of those victims are young women. According to police-reported and self-reported data, the rates of violent crime against women aged 15 to 24 are 42 per cent higher than rates for women 25 to 34—and nearly double the rates of women aged 35 to 44. Rates of spousal violence and homicide are highest for women in the 15 to 24 age group too.

Targetted violence
Why are young women at such a higher risk of becoming victims of domestic violence? A variety of factors make them vulnerable.

Younger women are inexperienced and often get caught up in volatile relationships where they confuse control for love.

Young women are also the age group most likely to attempt to flee a violent relationship, which makes them particularly vulnerable, as the abuser sees their control diminishing and resorts to even more violence to prevent the object of his obsession from leaving.

“Young women have more access to information and how to get to a shelter, and may also not have children with their partner, which makes it much easier for them to leave an abusive relationship,” explains Melpa Kamateros, co-founder and executive director of Shield of Athena, a Montreal-based, non-profit organization for victims of family violence offering emergency shelter and professional services to women and their children since 1991.

“That time when they’re attempting to leave is also the most dangerous for them. It explains the higher mortality rates,” Kamateros adds.

Young immigrant women with potential language barriers and not a lot of community support may not have easy access to information about shelters and any help available to them, which makes them much more inclined to remain in a violent situation for lack of options.

The same often applies to many Indigenous women, young single moms, and women with little or no education who also often make the decision to stay in abusive relationships because of poverty. Fear of ending up on the street can often make young vulnerable women choose “the devil that they know, as opposed to the devil that they don’t.”

Right to know
The lack of adequate sexual education in schools, either because of lack of funding or because some parents erroneously believe that sex education equates to consenting to their children having an active sex life, is also putting young women at risk.

“A big piece of this connects back to sex education, particularly teachings around relationships and consent,” says Melissa Fuller, a sexual health educator. “Many people (young women but also young men who often enact the violence) are not receiving much guidance around healthy relationships—what they look like, how to recognize signs of an unhealthy one, how to set boundaries and affirm them, or how to recognize others' boundaries.

Often, the main models for relationships are parents or media, she adds, which aren’t always “the best examples.”

“As a result, many people don't know what abuse looks like until they’re experiencing it, because it's usually an escalation and by that point it can be very difficult to take any action,” Fuller adds.

Empowering young women and helping them see the warning signs of abusive and controlling relationships are active ways to reduce young female victims of conjugal violence.

Cynthia Masi agrees. She’s a social worker at the Shield of Athena who specializes in mother/child relationships and works with young victims of conjugal violence.

“Young women who are beginning to experiment with relationships are not always equipped to identify the complexity of violence in intimate partner relationships,” she says. “They’re often not aware of the red flags and power dynamics that these relationships entail.

Abusive relationships don’t always begin as abusive; although, often, women are able to identify the red flags from the beginning of the relationship once provided with the information."

Red flags include jealousy, claims of love at first sight, and controlling behaviours disguised as concern for their safety. These are often mistaken for signs of love and affection.

“Many women identify the beginning of these relationships as romantic and passionate and describe their partners as charismatic,” Masi says. “As these relationships develop deeper into unhealthy partnerships, there is a longing for the passion that once was and a hope that their partners will change.”

Breaking the cycle
“It doesn’t help that teenagers are often reluctant to ask for help. “According to a study conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, only 33 per cent of teens who were in an abusive relationship told anyone about the abuse,” reveals Masi.

“Education around healthy relationships (romantic and otherwise), including consent is important for all genders because we need to be reaching people who may be victimized as well as the ones enacting the violence,” says Fuller. “This education needs to start early, learning about boundaries and self-affirmation, because so many adults struggle with these concepts as well.”

Masi emphasizes how important outreach is for young women.

“I work with teens that have been exposed to conjugal violence,” she says. “Their relationship norms, which have been modeled after that of their parents, can lead to similar patterns in their own personal relationships.”

Masi’s main role is to drive home the point that violence isn’t normal for any relationship.

“My role is to … establish healthy communication patterns and conflict resolution skills for future relationships, while providing resources and access to information as a tool of empowerment,” she says.

The ultimate hope is that empowerment and knowledge will lead to a decrease in spousal violence and homicide rates.


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