Women Fight Domestic Violence Everywhere in the Downtown Eastside
By Cecily Nicholson
Bringing an end to “domestic violence” has been a rallying cry for women’s rights advocates for a long time. In the Downtown Eastside poverty, homelessness and unsafe housing define many women’s lives. Here “domestic” has a slightly different and more public meaning. It includes the bathrooms, hallways, alleys, streets, shelters, parks, drop-ins and health services. These are the personal spaces of everyone, especially women, who are homeless or confined to SROs or shelters.
As one woman resident of the 100-block explains: “In the hotels on the 100-block everywhere outside of your room is public space. There are a lot of women living in the hotels on the 100-block. When women leave their rooms at night to take a leak in the common bathroom we wonder if there is a man behind our door. We wonder if there is a man in the bathroom. And when we come back we wonder if there is a man waiting for us in our rooms. We feel locked up in our own rooms.”
Spaces that more privileged people call “public” end up being part of home: sources of support and living rooms for low-income Downtown Eastside women. A woman who lives in the Grand Union hotel remarks: “Pigeon Park is my comfort zone, it’s where all my friends are. My room is like a closet so I’m up and out of my place at 6:30am. And I’m there all day every day, even in the rain and snow. It’s my first home. My room is my second home.” For her, even the community centres and services are not safe places. “In the community centers I feel judged. If I go into a community centre and they smell my breath they make me feel like I don’t belong. But in the park I have a little family.”
I found dealing with violence at the Downtown Eastside Womens’ Centre frustrating because we were only able to deal with what happened in the centre. But it often comes indoors from the outside. The problems outside run deep. The government keeps welfare rates too low and isn’t building social housing. The result is that social service spaces are strained and run overcapacity trying to meet the desperate food, money, and housing needs of too many people. It is constant work to create spaces that are safe and accessible for everyone.
Over the years individuals and groups have organized and fought the welfare-and-housing issues while making sure the safety of women is everyone’s concern, everywhere. The safe spaces in the Downtown Eastside are the result of people of this community’s struggles, not because of charity. We must continue to speak out and stand behind women of this community’s strength, courage and ability to make change. One of the most incredible legacies of this community is the struggle for the rights of women to live free of violence. This includes freedom from domestic violence, and the right to affordable safe housing.
Womens’ safety must be part of every DTES struggle
The DTES Women’s Memorial March committee states, “We want safety for women – safety for women from sexual, emotional, mental, and physical violence as well as safety from the daily indignities of poverty.” The Women’s Coalition of the DTES explains that womens’ safety is not a given anywhere, even in social services and housing and points out that “most services and spaces in the Downtown Eastside are either for men, or are co-ed spaces which default to men.” They call for “all groups and services, including co-ed ones… to embrace a women-centred philosophy and… practices that ensure women’s access and safety.” The DNC ‘s constitution says, “We support women’s safety as a basic and unconditional right” that must never be sacrificed to provide shelter or services to others.