Breaking the Links between poverty and violence against women: A resource guide – Working with women living in poverty on violence issues

Working with Women Living in Poverty on Violence Issues

Strategies and Initiatives


Increasingly, women who have experienced violence have needs that are related to a lack of adequate income (Canada, Statistics Canada 2006a, 40). And, it is more and more apparent that women cannot start the process of healing unless they can put food on the table, a roof over their children's heads and clothes on their backs. To be effective, energy and time must be spent helping women to find safe and affordable housing, access legal services, deal with transportation issues and obtain family benefits and other services to which they are entitled.

As they struggle to address the multiple needs of low- income victims of violence, agencies and organizations are recognizing the added value of collaborative approaches. Many communities have established inter- agency coordination to address violence and poverty issues. Members of these groups and coalitions have developed protocols, implemented policy changes in their organizations, offered training and established new programs to increase women's access to services. They have also tried to ensure that their initiatives are sensitive to the reality and needs of various communities.

Women's organizations have also entered coalitions to advocate for low-income single-parent families and abused women and have mobilized to push governments into action. Sometimes these social action initiatives have had a high profile. For example, the 1995 Bread and Roses March from Montreal to Quebec City, which made demands on the Quebec government related to economic justice, received significant attention.

Below are some examples of strategies and initiatives that are making a difference, largely because they are designed by low-income women or by groups that have taken the time to understand the reality of poverty and violence. You are invited to contact the organization listed for more information (see detailed information in the section called Contact Organizations).

Participation is four times higher since the centre moved to its new location.


Outreach to potential users of a service, to draw them to a centre or program, or to take services closer to them, is an important step in improving access to programs and services. Low-income women may find it difficult to travel a long way to services and may be less comfortable outside their neighbourhood. Organizations are developing ways to overcome these barriers.

Reducing Barriers to Services

Here are some ways to make services and programs more accessible to low-income women:

  • locate your office in the neighbourhood where women live;
  • offer counselling support groups at locations where women spend time;
  • advertise support groups at different locations in the neighbourhood;

make your services accessible to women with disabilities - locate your office in a building with wheelchair access; use large lettering to advertise your services; obtain a TTY (teletypewriter); for outreach, try door knocking to reach women in their homes; and hire women with disabilities to work in your organization.

Women with disabilities have had to do a lot of awereness-raising about the many barriers faced by women in using services related to violence.

Improving Services for Women with Disabilities

Women with disabilities continue to raise awareness about the many barriers faced by women in using violence and abuse services. While listening to a presentation by an advocate, the Executive Director of Harmony House , a women's shelter in Ottawa, asked herself if the shelter was accessible to women with disabilities. The answer was no. This realization led to an initiative with several elements, all aimed at providing better services and access to services for women with disabilities in the community.

A multi-agency action group that included women with disabilities who were abuse survivors was set up to guide the project. The action group designed and implemented an accessibility survey covering both physical and attitudinal dimensions of access. The survey process resulted in concrete improvements being made by agencies that work with women. Many of the area shelters were supported by the action group in improving their physical accessibility. Staff were also provided with training about the needs of women with disabilities.

Similar to the specific work done at Harmony House , in 2007, DisAbled Women's Network (DAWN) Canada, a national organization of women with various disabilities, started a National Accessibility and Accommodation Survey (NAAS) focusing on women's shelters in Canada. The survey allows each shelter to do a complete audit of its facilities and provides shelter administrators and managers with information and resources to make improvements and set objectives towards a goal of 100% accessibility. DAWN Canada will use the outputs from the survey to provide online and printed toolkits for women's shelters and to develop other resources for increasing accessibility. Ongoing training and development for shelter and outreach workers is another important part of this ongoing initiative.

Contact: Harmony House and DAWN Canada

Reaching Women in Their Communities

In recent years, the Bay St. George Status of Women Council has become increasingly aware that low-income women in their region are not accessing the programs and services that are available to them. Poverty and violence can lead to social isolation and it seemed that many women were not aware how or where to get help. Also, many women found it difficult to navigate the often complex requirements of some programs and services.

In response, in 2008 the Council launched a project called "Women's Access to Community Resources for Social Inclusion", through which a full inventory of programs and services for low-income women is being collected and will be made available to them via workshops. The project is supported by resource people or 'champions' in each community; the champions are volunteers from each community (Bay St. George, Port aux Basques and Cornerbrook) who are trusted to support other women in their area. The goal of the project is not just to provide a superficial inventory but to gather detailed information about how women can access these programs and services.

Contact: Bay St. George Status of Women Council

Serving Immediate Needs

Lachute (Quebec) has a population of approximately 12,000. The unemployment rate in Lachute is very high due to plant closures in recent years, and violence and poverty are part of many women's lives. Le Carrefour des femmes du Grand Lachute is a women's centre that has been working on these issues since it opened in 1983. To support low-income women to feel more comfortable, Le Carrefour relocated to a low-income housing complex several years ago. Participation in the centre has quadrupled since the change was made.

In its efforts to address poverty and violence Le Carrefour has placed a priority on meeting women's most urgent needs. Often this involves helping women to feed their families; Le Carrefour offers a food bank and an 'eggs, milk and oranges' program for pregnant women. The food bank is managed by the women clients themselves. And, unlike many other food banks, the women who go to Le Carrefour are not required to justify why they need to use the service or to prove that they are living on a low income.

Le Carrefour also set up a clothing and household goods exchange, along with daycare services for children up to 6 years old (the daycare is open four days per week at a cost of $0.50 per hour). Respite childcare is also available for mothers who are in need of a break and who do not want to depend on governmental agencies for childcare (again the cost is minimal at $5 per family). In addition, staff at Le Carrefour support women in learning how to budget.

For women who are also dealing with violence issues Le Carrefour offers a range of programs and activities to support them in developing their sense of self-esteem and to gain greater independence and control in their lives.

Contact: Carrefour des femmes du Grand Lachute

Innovative Projects and Programs for Low-Income Women

There are many examples across Canada of innovative projects and programs designed to meet the specific needs of women survivors of violence who are struggling financially and who want to break out of the cycle of poverty and violence. These projects range from helping women to find a safe place to live, to helping women increase their chances of finding work and securing their independence. Here are a few examples.

In many areas of the country, there is a critical shortage of affordable housing for women fleeing abusive relationships.

Meeting Women's Housing Needs

In many areas of the country, there is a critical shortage of affordable housing for women fleeing abusive relationships, in spite of the fact that abused women and their families are to be given priority for subsidized housing. In Ottawa, a group of community activists working with abused women wanted to increase women's access to social housing.

The group started a dialogue between service providers working with abused women and social housing organizations. This collaboration led to the adoption in 2006 of a protocol to help women gain easier access to social housing and to improved communication between the two networks. Joint workshops were held to help social housing suppliers better understand the situation of abused women, and how to help service providers learn more about social housing rules and regulations. Transition house workers are actively involved in helping women find affordable housing and some of the barriers have been eliminated by the protocol.

Contact: Maison d'Amitié

Increasing Women's Safety at Home

On the urging of survivors of violence, some housing co-ops across Canada have declared themselves "domestic violence free" zones and have enacted by-laws that permit the co-ops to evict residents who are accused of domestic violence. This initiative is a concrete example of action taken to ensure that women can be safe in their own homes by placing the burden of finding alternate housing upon the perpetrator. Rent subsidies can also be provided to women who are unable to pay the rent after their abusive partner has been evicted.

Contact: Cooperative Housing Federation of Canada

Improving women's ability to get a job greatly enhances their independance and their ability to change or leave an abusive situation.

Helping Women in Transition with Supportive Housing

The PEI Transition House Association was established in 1980 and serves women and their children who are experiencing abuse in Prince Edward Island. The Association includes Anderson House, an emergency women's shelter in Charlottetown, and outreach workers who assist women in smaller communities (Montague, Summerside, O'Leary, and Queen's region) who are experiencing violence and have opted to remain in their home communities.

Recognizing that when women are required to leave the shelter they can still be at risk of violence, the Association began offering second-stage housing for women and their children who wish to make changes in their lives after they stay at Anderson House. Anderson apartments are independent, high-security units with outreach support services on site. Women can stay for up to one year, giving them the opportunity to think about and plan for a future without fear.

Contact: PEI Transition House Association

Improving Women's Employability

Bridges for Women Society is a Victoria-based, non-profit organization that helps low-income women who are survivors of abuse to develop the skills they need to access paid work and gain their independence.

Since 1988, Bridges has provided courses to help women overcome the barriers to employment that are related to recovery from trauma. The courses cover personal skills such as communication, assertiveness and conflict resolution techniques; employability skills such as computer training and resume preparation; other skills upgrading; and bridging skills such as writing, workplace information gathering and mapping community supports.

Bridges recognizes that low-income women who have experienced abuse face particular challenges. The trauma of being abused can result in a multitude of physical and psychological impacts that affect women's employability.

For instance, women who have experienced abuse can suffer from anxiety and depression; they may have difficulty concentrating or maintaining disciplined practice; and they may be suspicious or forgetful. It can take them more time to go through job-training programs than other women. They may have to work harder to build up their self-confidence and be more concerned about their safety. The overall goal of the Bridges courses is to help women to break the abusive cycle and to develop the skills needed to move from dependence and reactiveness to independence and self-direction.

I knew that if I got emotionally healthy I could pass that on to my kids. I learned about communication, healthy boundaries, how to assert myself in a respectful way, conflict resolution and the importance of self care. I also learned what a treasure trove of strengths and skills I have and how I can use them in my personal and work life.

A Bridges graduate

For women living outside of Victoria who may not have access to similar programs, Bridges offers an on- line program. Working with computer access points around the region, libraries and women's support agencies, women can take the courses online.

Contact: Bridges for Women Society

The Impact of Poverty on Employability

Women who have experienced abuse often find themselves living in poverty, either on income assistance or in low-paying jobs. The consequences of living in poverty often manifest in physical and emotional health problems.

How does poverty impact employability?

  • Inability to pay for adequate childcare
  • The high cost of childcare makes it difficult for women to afford food, clothing and other necessities
  • Poverty may influence a return to an underpaid job or high risk activity
  • Poor nutrition can lead to inability to concentrate and physical weakness
  • Financial crises and worries impact ability to attend or be effective at work

A Bridges for Women Society (2007), p.35.

Empowering women to change not only their own lives but to bring about change in the conditions that affect them is a critical long-term strategy.

Meeting Women's Practical Needs

The Victoria Women In Need Community Cooperative (WIN) is a not-for-profit social cooperative that operates resale shops in Victoria, British Columbia and is entirely self-sustaining in providing programs for women in transition to self-sufficiency.

WIN 's mission is to create opportunities for women and their families to be self-sufficient, employed, inspired, socially and environmentally aware and connected to their communities. WIN works directly with Victoria area transition houses and second stage housing projects, along with many other community organizations that support women's self sufficiency.

WIN 's programs include:

  • The Gift Certificate Program provides women and their children with clothing and other essential items when they enter a transition house.
  • When they leave the transition house, the New Start Program provides all the household goods and furnishings needed for a woman to set up her own home. To date, over 1600 women have received a New Start set-up.
  • The Community Gifts in Kind Program provides essential items to organizations to support them in delivering programs to their clients. Individual community members can also access this program on a walk in basis.
  • The Resale Shops provide a resource for affordable high quality second hand items for the community, as well as creating employment and volunteer oppor tunities. WIN also supports the environment by diverting 92% of the approximately 1000 tons of donated goods that they receive each year from the landfill.

Contact: Victoria Women In Need Community Cooperative

Although it is not always easy to practice, it is important to recognize and continually challenge the traditional client/service provider relationship and transform it into a mutual learning experience.

When I came to the shelter I had absolutely nothing to begin again. He had left us in debt. I had no beds for the kids, no pots, no towels. How was I going to set up a home?

Source: Mosher (2004), p.68.

Direct Services

Many agencies that provide services to women living in poverty and facing violence start by recognizing women's strengths and take an asset-building approach to supporting women. These organizations are developing programs that increase women's self-esteem and sense of safety, deal with practical problems and barriers, and address multiple needs. As the challenges facing women become more complex, agencies are moving toward a community development approach that addresses the different dimensions of women's lives - personal, physical, human, social and financial.

Community Advocacy and a Non-Directive Approach to Counselling

Women living in poverty and experiencing violence must re-establish trust with those around them before sharing their experiences and asking for help. For many years, the North End Women's Centre in Winnipeg has been providing a non-directive approach to counselling. Counsellors offer comfort and safety to women and provide opportunities to talk, but wait until the woman is ready to speak openly about violence or any other issues she wants to deal with. Most of the women who participate in activities at the centre live on low incomes and many are Aboriginal. For some, it takes years before they are able to talk about the violence in their lives.

Many women who have been abused are made to feel that they are responsible for the violence. As well, low- income women often have had negative experiences with people who judge them and subtly blame them for their poverty. To address these challenges, women in crisis need an advocate, someone who understands their situation and can liaise with the healthcare system, the courts, social service groups and sister agencies. The North End Women's Centre now provides a proctor service to address this gap, and there is an advocate on staff to ensure that women not only have their basic needs met, but that they are treated with respect and dignity.

Contact: North End Women's Resource Centre

Women in crisis need an advocate, someone who understands their situation and can liaise with medical practitioners, the courts, social service groups and sister agencies to help explain their situation and ensure their needs are met. It is about women helping women to meet basic needs

Elyiana Angelova, North End Women's Centre

Addressing Immediate and Longer-term Needs

The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia is unique because it is one of the only safe spaces within the area specifically and exclusively for women and their children living in extreme poverty. As well as providing shelter, the Centre provides basic necessities including daily hot and nutritional meals, a secure mailing address, phone access, functioning and secure toilet and showers, toiletries, clothing, computer access, harm reduction supplies and first aid to over 250 women and children each day. The Centre also provides an emergency drop- in shelter to over 50 women each night.

The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre exists to support and empower women and children living in poverty. High levels of violence, homelessness, addictions and poverty characterize this community. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, injustice and injury. As well as providing practical supports, the Centre provides advocacy, outreach, counselling, victim's services and skills development to support women to make long-term change and participate in the larger community.

Contact: Downtown Eastside Women's Centre

Working with Marginalized Women

Some women, such as those who are homeless, face extreme poverty, isolation and marginalization. These women need flexible services and a supportive environ ment where erratic behaviour is accepted. Sistering is a community-based organiza tion in Toronto which works with homeless and low-income women. Many have long histories of mental illness, interrupted edu cation, homelessness, violence and poverty.

Sistering offers support to these women through programs that are adapted to their reality. For instance, support groups for women who have suffered abuse are flexible in that almost no demands are made on women to attend support groups regularly, and an informal approach is taken in the groups. Women can come and go as they wish, and group leaders respond to sudden outbursts of rage or frustration, which are not uncommon, in a nonjudgmental fashion. Women who are extremely disruptive are asked to leave the group for a specific period of time, but are always welcomed back.

Contact: Sistering

Homelessness, visible and hidden, is a signifiant women's health issue. It seriously impacts women's emotional/ mental, spiritual, and physical health.

Source: Sistering (2002). p.x.

Information for Women of All Ages

Women at any age can become cut off from vital sources of personal and financial support after leaving an abusive situation. A lack of knowledge of community resources is often identified as one of the barriers faced by women who have been abused and are economically vulnerable. The Support Network in Edmonton, Alberta offers a 24-hour distress line for victims of abuse and third parties concerned about loved ones. Operators on the distress line conduct risk assessments, safety planning, provide resources and referrals, and teach third parties how to support people in abusive situations. About one-quarter of the calls they receive each day are violence related - a woman reaching out for a solution to a crisis, looking for resources on how to leave an abusive situation or looking for support to face an uncertain future.

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to financial abuse, and often do not know where to turn when they find themselves exploited by family members or caregivers. In fact, staff at the Support Network identify financial abuse as the most common form of abuse reported by seniors. According to the Support Network , this is a growing trend and they receive calls every day from distressed seniors on fixed incomes who are being manipulated for their life savings by a family member or power of attorney. They have developed a specific Seniors Abuse Helpline to address this need and offer a follow-up program to provide post-crisis support and long-term planning for seniors.

The Support Network also operates a 211 information and referral service which provides links to hundreds of agencies in the Edmonton area.

Contact: The Support Network

Helping Women in Remote Communities

Women who live in small remote communities in Nunavut face a broad range of challenges in deciding to relocate to escape violence, unique to their physical location. Along with the complex emotional pressures involved in leaving their 'home' community, especially when they have children, they also have to consider the financial impact of moving to a new town. The high cost of living in the North and the cost of air travel to 'get out' and go to a shelter are daunting financial barriers. Having made the decision to leave, some women are able to obtain financial support from health and social service authorities to cover their airfare.

The women's shelter located in Inuvik on Baffin Island provides short-term safety and support to women and their children from the town and from the remote communities of the Beaufort Delta region. Because many of the women they work with have had to leave their home communities to find safety, the shelter has placed a priority on helping women to find permanent housing in Inuvik so that they may settle there. This can mean advocating on a woman's behalf with the income support program to obtain a housing unit, canvassing the town to find donations, and providing assistance to move a woman out of the shelter and into a new home.

Contact: Inuvik Transition House Society

Mutual Support

As the issues facing communities become more diverse and complex, communities are looking to provide mutual support and identify local solutions. More and more, marginalized communities are working together to address issues of violence.

Working Together as a Community

The West Flat Citizen's Group was started by a group of determined citizens in a low-income neighbourhood in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. They believed that they would be more successful if they worked in partnership with social services to address violence in their community. The Group began when five mothers, who were worried about their children and others, surveyed their community to identify common problems. The community was concerned about issues of housing, crime and violence, poverty, child care, education and the lack of recreational facilities.

Their initiative led to the creation of a community association, administered by a board of directors, which secured grants for projects. In addition, the board started to work in partnership with social services to offer programs through the community centre. These programs include traditional parenting classes, training in life skills and healthy lifestyles, mediation, as well as sports and recreation and youth programs.

Now under new leadership, the Group continues to reach out the community to provide a warm, informal approach that brings together elders and community workers to point families to the support and services they need. Their work is based on a holistic approach and traditional Aboriginal teachings, guided by the medicine wheel and spiritual practices, such as smudging and prayer. They emphasize traditional parenting teachings that encourage respect and self-care, viewing children as gifts within the family structure.

Contact: West Flat Citizens Group

The Travelling Song Blanket

Sometimes it takes a particular event or activity to bring women together. The community of women at Minwaashin Lodge , a centre for Aboriginal women and children affected by violence in Ottawa, was called by the Aboriginal Action Circle to create a blanket for the Sisters in Spirit Initiative . The Initiative is being led by the Native Women's Association of Canada to improve the human rights of Aboriginal women and to address violence against Aboriginal women in Canada, in particular the high rates of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

"The Travelling Song Blanket" was made during the winter of 2007 by 14 First Nations, Inuit, Metis and non-Aboriginal women. Traditional teachers were on hand to advise the women throughout the process. The blanket was created as a sacred object with a message. It was given a name and feasted in the traditional way.

For the women at Minwaashin Lodge the, the blanket project provided them with an opportunity to explore how their own cultural traditions could be sources of strength and inspiration in their healing journey. It was also a symbolic way for the women to express activism in support of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

The blanket brought the community together and has been honoured at many festivities including drumming circles, feasts and community events. Contact: Minwaashin Lodge & Native Women's Association of Canada

Community Supported Services to Reduce Isolation

Many women from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds do not want to risk being socially isolated from their community, making it a barrier for them to report abuse or seek the support they need. The Muslim Family Safety Project (MFSP) was established to build bridges between the Muslim community and anti-violence agencies to address woman abuse in a culturally competent manner.

One of the main outcomes of this project was the establishment of the Muslim Family Support Service (MFSS) in London, Ontario. The MFSS provides culturally competent resources and supports to Muslim women and children affected by woman abuse. Many women served by the MFSS are immigrants and refugees from conflict zones, and their post-migration experience often includes loss of status, unemployment or underemployment, trauma and other stressors that put them at risk of experiencing poverty.

The MFSS breaks down the social isolation faced by Muslim women and families by working within the social fabric of the Muslim community and mobilizing the community to develop their own response to family violence. It links families affected by domestic (or intimate partner) violence with existing services, while also connecting these services with resources that reflect the importance of the experiences, values, perspectives and concerns of the Muslim community.

The project has been successful in mobilizing a community response. The local mosque has provided financial assistance to the initiative and local Muslim leaders have spoken out against family violence by incorporating Canadian and Islamic views. Community efforts include public presentations, Friday sermons, and published articles on woman abuse and family violence in local Arabic newspapers and in newsletters of the two local mosques.

Contact: Muslim Family Support Service

There is a need to continue working collaboratively and creatively with other local agencies in order to provide members of the Muslim community with appropriate and responsive supports in community settings, and to ensure Muslim women and families are not isolated.

Mohammed Baobaid, founder of the Muslim Family Safety Project, London, Ontario

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