Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Addressing the Safety and Trauma Issues of Abused Women: A Cross-Canada Study of YWCA Shelters

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Addressing the Safety and Trauma Issues of Abused Women: A Cross-Canada Study of YWCA Shelters

Article excerpt


The serious and potentially life-threatening nature of violence against women by intimate partners has become a concern across North America and worldwide (Alhabib, Nur, & Jones, 2009; Brzozowski, 2004; Field & Caetano, 2005). Shelters for women abused by intimate partners are often seen as the major resource to address intimate partner violence, yet few published evaluations have explored the pathways into and out of shelters and how the residents fare throughout this process, both in terms of their perspectives and their mental health outcomes.

This paper reviews the nature and consequences of such abuse, research on shelters and shelter programs and presents the results of a study conducted in partnership with ten violence against women shelters located across Canada (nine operated by YWCA Canada). Issues and implications for shelter and post-shelter programs and services are presented.

The Abuse of Women by Intimate Partners

The abuse that women endure from intimate male partners typically extends throughout the relationship and takes many forms including significant physical and psychological abusive acts, sexual abuse and degradation (Johnson, 2006). Partner abuse is not about anger in reaction to disputes but the intentional and instrumental use of power to control a woman's actions, usefully entitled "coercive control" by Stark (2007). The physical abuse of women by their partners often results in serious injuries and, for some, life-long disabilities (Nosek, Clubb Foley, Hughes, & Howland, 2001).

Women are commonly raped and/or sexually coerced by abusive partners (Bergen, 2004; Temple, 2007), 50% of shelter residents in one study (Tutty, & Rothery, 2002a). Sexual assault may result in serious physical injuries. Psychological abuse is always a factor when women are physically or sexually assaulted. It entails making degrading comments and sexual slurs that target the most private and personal aspects of women's lives. Psychological abuse also includes death threats that elevate the risk of harm to a new level that must be taken seriously.

In summary, the nature of the abuse that women suffer from their partners is varied and pernicious. While focusing on physical injuries is important, many women endure years of intense psychological abuse that devastate their lives and the lives of their children. Most women are abused in multiple ways, each of which has a cumulative effect on their feeling trapped and ineffective in either addressing the abuse or fleeing the abusive relationship.

Brownridge's 2006 research highlighting that women are at risk of serious violence after having left abusive partners adds a new consideration that can paralyse women from acting. Leaving to a safe place such as a shelter may ensure her and her children's immediate safety; however, after she leaves the shelter her safety may again become at risk.

The Impact of Woman Abuse

Being abused by one's intimate partner is difficult, especially if the threats and physical abuse continue over time. Serious abuse commonly results in women experiencing anxiety, depression, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, or abusing substances (Golding, 2002; Tutty, 1998). Each of these reactions could suggest the need for psychiatric intervention, implying that the abused woman is mentally unbalanced: a position that ignores the context of her situation and who is responsible for her reactions.

However, rather than looking at the symptoms in isolation, a number of authors apply a trauma perspective (Vogel & Marshall, 2001). An advantage of this view is that, by definition, these reactions are seen as "normal responses to abnormal occurrences in the lives of these victims" (Gleason, 1993, p. 62). More importantly, the trauma model moves away from an individual perspective that perceives abused women as responsible for having created their symptoms. …

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