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Fearing ‘victimization’, some newcomers may not turn to women’s shelters: advocate

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A lack of cultural understanding in Manitoba’s women’s shelters puts some newcomer women and their children at risk, who may feel they have no choice but to stay in abusive homes rather than seek help, says a concerned defender.

Safe spaces that provide shelter and resources for women fleeing domestic violence are even more essential now, as research has shown an increase in the frequency and severity of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As Manitoba’s population mosaic changes, there is a great need to also change the way we deliver services…which is not being done right now,” said Zita Somakoko, who leads the group. advocacy Breaking the Silence on Domestic Violence.

She gave the example of a mother and son who ate nothing but bread and water for a week because a shelter did not meet their religious food needs.

In another case, a man was allowed to enter the living quarters of a group of Muslim women who had already removed their hijab – which many Muslim women wear to maintain the modesty and intimacy of the men with whom they were not related.

In yet another case, Somakoko said she had to personally appeal to the executive director of a shelter that was about to evict a woman who had come there to escape violence.

The shelter had taken the woman’s reluctance to discuss her abusive husband’s divorce as proof that she had made it all up.

Zita Somakoko is the founder of Breaking the Silence on Domestic Violence. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

“This woman reached out because she said, ‘They’re treating us like je ne sais quoi, it’s awful what’s going on here,'” Somakoko said.

But “for many cultures, divorce is not something easy to approach”.

She immediately set about trying to convince the shelter that the woman needed help urgently.

“I’m like, really? So you mean to tell me this woman has a house…she’s paying the mortgage on her house [and] do you think she would just leave her house in the middle of the night to enter a crowded shelter because…she’s just looking for some pity?” Somakoko said, recalling her conversation with the shelter’s executive director.

Despite the importance of shelters — the primary gateway to resources for women fleeing domestic violence — Somakoko says some immigrant and refugee women have stopped reaching out to shelters in Manitoba because they fear being “victimized.” indirect” when they do.

In search of solutions

The situation has led some Winnipeggers to seek solutions outside the province.

Yasmine Youssef is the national director of Nisa Homes, a network of transitional shelters in four provinces that primarily serve Muslim newcomer women.

Clients we have served… tell us, “The only reason I left my abusive home was because I knew you spoke my language, looked like me, and understood my culture.– Yasmine Youssef, National Director of Nisa Homes

“It’s very hard to know why someone hasn’t reached out [to a shelter] but according to…the clients we’ve served, many of them, in fact the majority of them tell us, “The only reason I left my abusive home was because I knew that you speak my language and look like me, and understand my cultural,” she said.

She says worried women in Winnipeg contacted Nisa Homes about opening a shelter in Manitoba.

Although a needs assessment for a Nisa Homes shelter in Winnipeg has been completed, the project has stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Youssef says there are changes existing shelters can make to be more inclusive.

“The changes we have in our homes…are so small; they’re not huge changes where you have to change the structure of the building or anything,” she said.

Yasmine Youssef is the national director of Nisa Homes, a network of shelters that primarily serves Muslim newcomer women. (Submitted by Yasmine Youssef)

These include having staff who speak the language of customers and ensuring that staff have anti-racism training, as well as equity and diversity training, Youssef said.

Another change can be to provide meals that meet the customer’s religious requirements, such as kosher or halal food – “things like that, which are not the end of the world to implement but go a long way in supporting those customers. “, said Youssef.

Raising awareness of the issue: association of shelters

The issue of cultural sensitivity is one that the Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters “has been aware of for some time,” said Amrita Chavan, communications specialist at the association.

She says MAWS realized that immigrant, newcomer, refugee women and families are a very vulnerable group because they “face so many unique challenges,” ranging from language barriers to lack of awareness of services and rights.

The association began to try to bridge the gap between the shelters and the newcomer community.

In November of last year, she launched an awareness campaign in five languages ​​to let newcomers know about the services available. Chavan said it was just a “first step”.

They followed up in December with the launch of a project called Centering the Rights of Women on the Margins.

The project, which is expected to last two to three years, aims to serve immigrant, newcomer and refugee women, as well as Indigenous women and girls, 2SLGBTQQIA people, trans women, seniors, people with disabilities or with mental illness and rural, northern or remote women, among others, says a project document.

“One of the goals of this project is to make the entire gender-based violence system in Manitoba more inclusive and culturally sensitive,” Chavan said of the project, which was launched last year. last on the occasion of Human Rights Day.

“[It’s] really looking at which groups are even more vulnerable and how we make the shelter system more accessible for those groups. »

News Radio – MB8:34November is Domestic Violence Awareness Month…and Information Radio will teach us how women in newcomer communities face barriers to getting help – and finding safety. Until now.

Violence against women occurs in all communities. But women in newcomer communities face specific barriers to getting help and finding safety. Amrita Chavan, communications specialist at the Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters or MAWS, talks to host Marcy Markusa about an initiative to reach more newcomer women BECAUSE now that more and more newcomer women are using shelters, social and cultural taboos still prevent them from asking for help. 8:34

Youssef, of Nisa Homes, pointed out that there are resources that shelters in Manitoba can draw on, pointing to Indigenous shelters where “the way they approach healing is very grounded in Indigenous culture and gives clients a sense of belonging, a sense of security.”

“If you are fleeing violence, that safety, belonging and security has been forcibly taken away from you for so long that even if you have it, you may not feel safe, but it is a step in the right way.”