Content Warning: This story discusses sexual and gender-based violence (GBV). It may affect those who have experienced abuse or know someone who has. Please read with care for your own well-being.
If you or someone you love has experienced gender-based violence, please know that there is help. For free, confidential, multilingual phone-based crisis intervention, VictimLinkBC is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-563-0808.
Much of the discussion about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) centres around safety — safety of people and the places we spend time in. But we can’t discuss community safety without considering the dark realities that many women in our community face: gender-based violence.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is defined as violence against someone because of their sex or gender identity, gender expression, or perceived gender. It can be physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, or a combination of multiple types of violence. It includes any word, action, or attempt to degrade, control, humiliate, intimidate, coerce, deprive, threaten, or harm that person. It can look like sexual assault, intimate partner violence, criminal harassment (stalking), and at its worst: murder of women, girls, and gender-diverse folks.
GBV disproportionately impacts gender-diverse and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people, Indigenous women and girls, BIPOC folks, refugees and newcomers to Canada, individuals living with disabilities, sex workers, and people in rural and remote areas.
Pushed into the public spotlight with the #MeToo movement in 2017, GBV is a widespread issue in Canada, and is an especially dangerous reality for women, girls, and gender-diverse people in the DTES.
- Two thirds (64%) of people in Canada know a woman who has experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
- Approximately 4.7 million women in Canada — 30% of all women 15 years of age and older — report that they have experienced sexual assault at least once, compared to 8% of men.
- From 2020 to 2022, there was a 24% increase in the number of women and girls in Canada who were killed by violence.
- Due to the ongoing impacts of colonialism, Indigenous women and girls in Canada have been murdered or go missing at a rate 4x higher than their representation in Canada. They are 12x more likely to be murdered or missing and 8x more likely to face abuse, than non-Indigenous women.
- In a 2023 survey conducted by Atira, out of 50 unhoused women living in the DTES who were interviewed, all indicated they do not feel safe and said they were subjected to violence, including sexual assaults.
To better understand how GBV is impacting our community, we spoke with an established Downtown Eastside organization that specializes in helping women and gender-diverse people find safety and receive care.
Vancouver Women’s Health Collective is mapping a safer future
Founded in 1971 by a collective of women seeking out better healthcare, the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective (VWHC) is a safe space in the DTES focused on health, safety, and wellness for women, non-binary individuals, and gender-diverse people. They provide a variety of community health services ranging from counselling to emergency shelter.
Speaking about the variety of safe spaces available in the DTES, Alessa, a Peer Worker with VWHC, shares, “You come over here looking for support or a safe place, but at the same time, [as a woman or gender-diverse person] you're vulnerable to experiencing gender-based violence.”
That’s why the VWHC is creating the first ever Gender-Based Violence Mapping & Accountability Project, funded by Women & Gender Equality (WAGE) Canada. Peer Workers involved in the project have interviewed over 250 self-identifying women and gender-diverse people in the DTES to hear about their experiences of GBV. They have mapped out high-risk areas including alleyways, city blocks, SkyTrain stations, drop-in centres, and single-room occupancy hotels (SROs).
VWHC will also be hosting 10 sharing circles for interviewees to share their experiences, foster community and connection, and help create policy recommendations for key stakeholders, like institutions, policy-makers, and support organizations.
Almost all the interviewees included in the project are dissatisfied with the current level of safety in the DTES. They hope to help create a safer community by holding identified key stakeholders accountable and pushing for tangible policy changes.
Additionally, using the data they’ve gathered, VWHC will create physical and digital maps showing GBV hot spots. These maps will be freely available to community members and key stakeholders alike. VWHC hopes to present their community map, report, and recommendations to the public at a series of town hall engagement meetings at the start of 2024.
Peer Workers at VWHC involved with this project hope that in the future, life will be safer for women and gender-diverse folks in the DTES.
UGM’s Women’s Resource Team is holding space for change
Located in Union Gospel Mission’s Women & Families Centre, the Women’s Resource Team (WRT) focuses on connecting with women wherever they’re at. Outreach Workers support women by lending a listening ear, providing practical supports like food, clothing, bus tickets, and timely referrals to specialized organizations like Watari and YWCA Crabtree Corner, depending on their needs.
“When the women come here, we affirm their situation,” says Maria, a Women & Families Outreach Worker. “We offer that pair of ears, listening, not judging, trauma-sensitive. And they feel connected — like sometimes they come here crying with horrific stories, and then after they are able to leave with a smile and say, ‘Thank you so much, you've been so helpful!’”
Some women who connect with the WRT are in unhealthy relationships where they are isolated with an abusive partner, but they might not realize it or be ready to leave. Outreach Workers can act as a sounding board to reflect on the relationship, offer help with women’s practical needs like food and clothing, or even refer them to empowering programs, like Atira’s Enterprising Women Making Art where they can sell their art to make some income. It’s through these human connections that women can examine their context and rebuild their confidence.
“When you are in this environment of violence, in your house alone — if you just stay there and focus on what's happened to you at the moment, it will be hard for you to move forward, and even more unlikely that you will wake up one day [to your reality],” notes Maria. “But if you come [to UGM], and someone sees you, supports you, and tries to connect you with resources in the community, then you will be empowered to realize, ‘Oh, I’m not alone.’ It’s like an awakening for you about the decisions that you need to make.”
Next steps into safety
If Maria had a magic wand, she would transform the DTES into a safer place for women and gender-diverse folks. Until she finds one, she is working to overcome two main challenges to women’s safety and care. Firstly, some of the women the WRT supports have faced violence from known sex offenders that they continue to see in the neighbourhood. Providing these women with safe places where they can find community is important.
Secondly, she’s noticed a big need for more supportive, sobriety-based shelters for women in the DTES, where “a woman can step away from that unsafe environment and connect to a healthy environment where she can grow and thrive.” Here, women could meet one-on-one with Outreach staff for support in creating goals and meeting housing needs.
We are grateful the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective and UGM’s dedicated Women’s Resource Team are supporting women and gender-diverse folks in the DTES, and advocating for safer communities for everyone.
The work isn’t over yet. We are hopeful that soon there will be more available resources in line with Canada’s National Action Plan to End GBV — grounded in the pillars of support, prevention, justice, Indigenous approaches, and robust social structures. In the meantime, women and gender-diverse individuals continue to need compassionate, dignifying places to access care and plan their next steps into safety and healing.
To learn more about the transformation that can happen in women’s lives, we encourage you to read Laura’s story.
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