photos: Almost 90 per cent of women canvassed in a recent survey said they felt unsafe at some point in the Downtown Eastside. Photo: Jackie Wong.

For inner-city women, violence stays prevalent

"At this point, we need behaviour changes," says the executive director of Battered Women's Supoort Services (BWSS). "We've got enough awareness."

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Despite the conviction of serial killer William Robert Pickton, the annual Women’s Memorial March held each Valentines’ Day in the Downtown Eastside since 1991, and the provincial government’s Commission of Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Women, attitudes towards violence against women
in the Downtown Eastside haven’t changed, according to Angela Marie MacDougall.

“At this point, we need behaviour changes,” says the executive director
of Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS). “We’ve got enough awareness.”

A report, released late last year by a coalition of 15 organizations serving women in the Downtown Eastside including BWSS, aims to turn that around. Titled “Getting to the Roots: Exploring Systemic Violence Against Women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver,” the report was inspired by a series of sexual assaults at First United Church’s co-ed shelter in 2011, as well as the province’s 2012-13 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.

The report summarizes answers to a survey of women who lived, worked, or spent significant time in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in 2012. One hundred and fifty-seven people responded to the survey. The group was comprised of mostly Aboriginal women with a median age of 47.

Almost 90 per cent reported feeling unsafe at some point in the DTES. About half, 48 per cent, experienced violence in the last two years.

MacDougall isn’t surprised by the findings. In many ways, she says, it confirms what we already know about women’s experiences in the DTES, where the majority of services are co-ed.

“Organizations that are co-ed are not necessarily places women access, or if they do access [them] they’re not finding them safe,” MacDougall says. Only 10 per cent of survey respondents reported going to co-ed spaces when they felt unsafe, while just 14 per cent felt comfortable discussing safety issues at co-ed spaces.

The report is just the latest attempt by members of the 15-member organization Women’s Coalition to tackle what feels
 like widespread apathy related to violence against women. The coalition includes 
the Aboriginal Front Door Society, WISH Drop-in Centre Society, and the Downtown Eastside Women’s Memorial March.

“This [the DTES] has been a place where men think they can come or be in and do violence against women with impunity,” MacDougall says. She points to the three serial killers, including convicted murderer Robert Pickton, who are believed to have preyed on women in the neighbourhood in the 1990s and early 2000s as an example.

The report’s recommendations include decriminalizing sex work, opening a 24-hour women-only shelter in the DTES, employing more indigenous women and low-income residents in DTES service organizations, and developing a DTES affordable housing strategy that ensures access to safe housing for everyone.

Although the report is directed towards outside actors like the provincial government, as well as organizations within the neighbourhood, MacDougall says solutions must “come from within.”

“In order to change the culture of the neighbourhood, it requires community based responses,” she says.

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