What are you going to do, starting now, to address violence against women?
That’s the question being posed by the organizers of the #StartingNow campaign — including women’s counsellor Brittan McClay and transition house coordinator Anna Maskerine — and they’re hoping the community’s response will go beyond so-called “hashtag activism.”
“It’s so true that oftentimes we can get caught up in our liking or in following hashtags, but with the #StartingNow campaign we’re trying to find things we can do,” McClay told the Star. “We want people to get active.”
The way it works is simple: just take a plain white piece of paper, scribble down a pledge, then upload a photo of yourself standing behind your words. Nelson police Sgt. Dino Falcone, city councillor Valerie Warmington and outreach worker Vanessa Alexander have already participated, garnering hundreds of likes and encouraging comments online.
“If the #StartingNow campaign means you’re going to hold up a sign, great. That’s a good first step. But it’s only the first step,” said McClay. “Now we need to carry it out into our ordinary, everyday lives.”
That means if someone tells a sexist joke, maybe you should call them on it, she said. And in situations where a woman is assaulted — she cited the case of former police Cst. Drew Turner — you should speak up on the victim’s behalf, as his fellow officers did.
“What I hope comes out of this is that we really see how, in our systems, they’re not really built to respond to a victim or someone who’s experienced trauma in that way,” said McClay, who was “incredibly upset” by the sexual assault trial involving media personality Jian Ghomeshi, and some of the media coverage involved.
“There’s a real silence piece, where the likelihood of women coming forward to tell their story is not high because there’s a historical and current experience of not being believed.”
It’s McClay’s job, though, to believe and support women no matter what. She wants anyone entrenched in a violent relationship and feeling like they don’t have the support they need to know something simple: “I believe you.”
So does Maskerine, who is the program coordinator for the Aimee Beaulieu transition house. She’s getting frustrated with the escalating situation locally. McClay’s caseload has been full since she started working two years ago and Maskerine’s facility routinely has a waitlist.
“It used to be we would have downtime where people would empty out for a while. We might have a family or two fleeing violence. But now it’s a revolving door and it’s been like that all the time for the past few years.”
Why is this happening?
“It’s a shift. It’s been a steady climb over the last couple decades because a lot of the other services and supports have changed. A lot of women are not getting the services they need. And we’re picking up those pieces,” said Maskerine.
She thinks people don’t get it.
“I’ve been in this field of work for 27 years and it still surprises me how many people are shocked it happens at all, and that it happens in Nelson. There’s a lot of disbelief that it happens at all, or at the proportion we’re seeing.”
She says we’re only seeing the “tip of the iceberg.”
“Most women are pushed underground and won’t speak out about their abuse because they’re scared of the repercussions. There’s so much victim-blaming. Any other crime, you don’t get blamed. But sexual or domestic violence women always get blamed and questioned.”
Which means people are asking the wrong questions.
“People are asking ‘why didn’t you leave him’ instead of asking ‘why don’t you stop treating her that way’?” she said, noting that stopping violence against women is often presented as a “women’s issue” — something she disagrees with.
“This is a men’s issue. We should be asking what can men do to stop hurting women?”
The #StartingNow campaign is a national initiative by Violence Against Women in Relationships, of which Nelson has a chapter.
And if you’re stuck in a abusive relationship, and think nobody understands, Maskerine and McClay want you to know that’s not the case. Maskerine said one particular message, put out over and over again, has proven to be routinely powerful: “you are not alone.”
“At first I didn’t realize the power of those words. They didn’t know that. They’d lived in their secret for so long they didn’t realize other people could understand,” she said, recounting a time someone was moved to tears by the assertion.
“They’re more than just words.”