A groundbreaking new website will offer women facing domestic violence help and resources to come to safety, according to Canadian researchers now enlisting women for a study of the project.
The goal is to give abused women confidential, personalized action plans so they can escape their partners, or help minimize their risk as they move through their decision process.
"We're hoping that women can be safer whether they leave partners or stay with partners," said Colleen Varcoe, a professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Nursing. Varcoe co-developed the study with researchers at the University of Western Ontario and the University of New Brunswick.
"Women may be at very different stages of their experiences. A woman may not even be labelling what she's experiencing as abuse. Or she may, for the reasons of her children, financial security or danger, not even have in her mind that she would ever leave her partner. What we're aiming to do is help her to be healthier, stronger, safer – regardless of what decision she makes."
The process starts with a phone call to the study line. A trained researcher first ensures that the woman calling has a secure e-mail address and a safe place to use a computer (be it at a library, community centre, café or a trusted friend or family member's house), or that she knows how to clear her browser and search history. Once she logs on to the iCan Plan 4 Safety website, researchers help assess her risk of danger. Women are asked about their immediate priorities and intentions for their relationships and then given resources, which the researchers have sourced through domestic-violence experts, police and child-protection staff.
"We give her a very tailored plan for her own safety, depending on what she's identified," said Varcoe. "It's totally individualized."
Over the course of the next year, each woman will get four follow-up sessions online to help her deal with the long-term physiological effects of violence, which can include chronic pain, panic attacks, anxiety and depression, even if she does leave the partner. Varcoe says these sessions shift the focus from short-term help in crisis to long-term support.
The researchers are currently enlisting participants to study how useful the website could be for women facing violence nationwide. One hundred abused women have joined so far, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 60s. The researchers are looking for 350 more from Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia. In particular, they are seeking gay women, transgender women and women living in rural settings who are worried about maintaining confidentiality. These demographics are often less well served by mainstream resources.
They also want to know whether their website could help victims who are reticent to use women's shelters: Fewer than 1 in 5 Canadian women access support from violence services, according to a 2011 University of Windsor study. "There's a big proportion of women experiencing violence that don't access any services," said Varcoe. "This is part of why it's important to provide an online resource."
A similar 2009 study with women facing violence in the United States found that a computerized intervention program had helped them take steps to increase their safety. The women reported that the intervention made them feel supported while protecting their privacy.
There were approximately 97,500 victims of intimate partner violence in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. The vast majority – 80 per cent – were women. Statistically, the most dangerous time for victims is when abusers find out they are leaving. Violence also tends to escalate after a separation: About 25 per cent of all women who are murdered by their spouse had left the relationship.
"We're not pushing women to leave partners. We're pushing them to have a really good understanding of their risks and to have a very good safety plan," said Varcoe.
According to the YWCA, on average a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good. For women who are staying, Varcoe hopes to help them monitor their own safety and have an escape plan in place. That can include keeping her own bank account and storing passports, birth certificates and other identification in a safe place.
"It's not just a safety plan, it's building a confidence plan," said Varcoe. "We know that the greater the gender equity, the lower the violence. The more women have access to resources independently, it strengthens a woman's power in a relationship."