A special kind of bullying

(supplement to Preventing Crime Through Social Development, October 2003)

"Addressing bullying and addressing violence against women are very much the same thing," says Krista De Coste, a facilitator with the Rural Healthy Relationships Project. The project, initiated by the Antigonish Women’s’ Resource Centre of Nova Scotia, trains youth facilitators in the schools to teach healthy expressions of boundaries, conflict resolution, and the importance of personal safety. "It’s a way of getting at the roots of social problems and violence against women," says De Coste.

This would be a valuable project in any part of Canada. Every year, far more women are killed by an intimate partner than police officers are killed in the line of duty – making it more dangerous to be a wife than a cop, says crime writer Elizabeth LeReverend. In Nova Scotia’s nine transition houses, 1,500 women were given shelter in 2000, 20,000 distress calls were fielded and 6,000 distress visits made.

Across Canada, the problem is particularly acute for young women – those aged 18 to 24 were most likely to experience spousal violence.

At the Antigonish Women’s’ Centre, one activity separates the students into gender groups to discuss the things they like and don’t like about their gender, the stereotypes they would like to change, and the qualities they look for in an intimate relationship. The groups then report back. "The boys enjoy the chance to break stereotypes as well. They said, ‘we have feelings too, we’re not only after one thing’ " says De Coste. Facilitators ask the students to be aware of diverse sexualities in this process.

Not surprisingly, the young women report the most positive effects from this program. De Coste says she received several very positive informal reports from relatives of the young women who participated, and she also received a letter of congratulations from a mental health worker who said the project was really helping her client with her progress.

Another interesting approach to help prevent violence against women comes from the New Leaf program in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Bob Whitman, who began the organization 18 years ago, says that New Leaf has now garnered enough trust in the community to make important inroads into prevention. "People appreciated the way we handled partner problems, and they turned to us when their sons also started acting that way." Typically, he says, sons start mirroring their father’s behaviour by the age of 14.

New Leaf found that the group discussion format which is so successful with older male abusers does not work with adolescents. Instead, says Whitman, they adopted a mentoring process with the young men. They make a connection with them, contracted to see them for four or five sessions, then encouraged them to come back if they had other issues they wanted to discuss. "It’s opening the door. One thing with young people is that they are often in situations where they need input."

New Leaf has also started an outreach program with children in Grades 7 and 9. Whitman notes that "the Grade 7 students are more open to talking about the problem of family violence. By Grade 9, they are starting to get into their notions and attitudes, and in some cases they’re already aware of dating violence among their classmates."

In Newfoundland, another project seeks out young men before they cross the line into sexual harassment or violent behaviour towards women. The Regional Coalition Against Violence surveyed young men at the bars and in the university, seeking their opinions on behaviour towards women. The results were certainly a wake-up call, says Cal Cole, Program Officer with the Newfoundland office of the National Crime Prevention Centre. "What was most commonly expressed in the interviews was 'if women go to bars and get drunk, then what happens to them is nobody’s fault but their own.' "

To give young men some perspective on their attitudes and actions, the Coalition is now organizing forums throughout Newfoundland. "They will tell the men that women are not necessarily looking for trouble, and that you should be more cautious," says Cole.

More information on the Rural Healthy Relationships Project