Thursday, September 4, 2008

Toronto Star opinion - on front lines of domestic abuse

By Carol Goar

It takes a special brand of courage to work in a women's shelter.
Every day brings searing evidence of the trauma of domestic abuse. Every client brings wounds and nightmares. Every shift brings the possibility that a violent spouse or boyfriend or will come seeking vengeance.

Outside Canada, the risks are even higher. Women's shelters are burned in arson attacks, invaded by armed militias and sold out by corrupt police. The brave women on the front lines of the rescue movement have never had a chance to meet and share their experiences.

That will change next week when Edmonton holds the First World Conference of Women's Shelters. More than 800 delegates from 51 countries – Afghanistan, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria, Serbia, Nepal and Zambia to name a few – are coming to the Sept. 8-to-11 meeting. They'll talk about everything from the trafficking of pre-teen girls to the challenges of elder abuse. A full day of the conference will be devoted to the question: What can men do?

Anyone who is surprised Alberta would host such a gathering hasn't met its organizer, Jan Reimer.
She served as Edmonton's mayor from 1989 to 1995. Family violence was one of her top priorities. Under her leadership, teams of police officers and social workers were set up to deal with incidents of domestic abuse.

She bolstered this initiative with a policy called Safer Cities that targeted money to poor neighbourhoods, required landlords to meet minimum standards and gave low-income people a voice at city hall.

Her critics scornfully labelled her the "caring and sharing mayor." She took the term as a compliment. "I make no apologies for my commitment to the underdog."

For two terms, Reimer led one of the most progressive city councils in Canada. She lost her bid for a third mandate to pro-business candidate Bill Smith.

But Reimer didn't stop fighting for the people she'd always championed. She widened her scope, becoming provincial co-ordinator of the Council of Women's Shelters.

Thanks largely to her vision and energy, Alberta became a leader in tackling domestic violence. Its shelters moved from ad hoc crisis intervention to public outreach and staff development. They built links with health-care institutions, employers, provincial officials and international partners.

Two years ago, Reimer was invited to make a presentation at a women's shelter conference of the Americas in Mexico City. At the end of meeting, the MC asked who would organize the next one. "Nobody stood up, so I did," she recalled in an interview.

When she got back to Edmonton, she asked herself: Why host a regional conference? Why not open it to the world?

It meant breaking new ground, coming up with roughly $1 million and finding shelter workers in countries with no databases and little infrastructure.

But once word got out, acceptances started pouring in. "We were thinking we'd get maybe 30 or 40," Reimer said. "In no time, we were up to 300."

The council mounted a mammoth fundraising campaign. It got a large contribution from CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency), which helped a lot. But it still had to persuade corporations, unions, the provincial government, the city and individual donors to pitch in.
Meanwhile, the delegate count kept growing. Visas had to be arranged, hotel rooms booked, speakers from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas lined up.

As opening day approaches, Reimer is on a blitz to make sure the conference isn't overshadowed by electoral skirmishing or relegated to the women's pages.

Domestic violence is one of the world's leading killers. It costs billions of dollars in lost productivity. It tears apart families, communities and societies. It is a justice issue, a health issue, an immigration issue, a public safety issue and a human rights issue.

"Shelter workers are the eyewitnesses and forgotten experts," Reimer says. "They have a story to tell and it's time for the world to listen."

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