What is Woman Abuse?

“Woman abuse” refers to any form of violence, abuse, threat, and/or neglect that a woman may experience from a variety of sources (e.g., current, dissolving, or past relationships with spouses and dating partners; family members; caregivers; co-workers; acquaintances; and, strangers). Underlying all woman abuse is a power imbalance between the woman and her abuser. It involves intent by the abuser to intimidate her, using threats and/or physical force on her person, her children, and/or her property. The abuse functions to control the woman’s behavior – by preventing her from doing what she wants to do, or by forcing her to do something against her wishes. To call these experiences “spousal assault” or “domestic violence” obscures the fact that most of the abuse is perpetrated by males against intimate female partners. Despite Canada’s laws to protect women, violence against them within the home (and elsewhere) is a critical problem.


  • NOT something that happens only to poor, uneducated women;
  • NOT something that women deserve or enjoy;
  • NOT the result of a woman’s actions, personality, or culture;
  • NOT fabricated by women whose memories are “false”;
  • NOT caused by women partnering with the “wrong” person.

The causes of woman abuse are deeply rooted in cultures that send the message that women are not worth as much as men. This creates an unequal power and control relationship between men and women, which has led (and continues to lead) to domination over, and discrimination against, women by men, and the prevention of women’s full advancement in society. Any woman – regardless of age, race, ethnicity, education, occupation, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, religion, personality, sexual orientation, or physical or mental abilities – may experience some form of abuse.

If violence was a biological component of males, all men would be violent. This is not the case – many men are decent, loving, responsible, and respectful people who do not harm women. To understand the problem of woman abuse, it is, therefore, necessary to comprehend the factors involved in the socialization of boys. Many boys are urged to prove their “masculinity” through acts of violence and a lack of compassion. Violent role models for boys (e.g., wrestlers, boxers, war heroes, action figures) outnumber peaceful, responsible, and caring ones. In addition, men who are insecure sometimes feel they have to control others, especially women, in order to be “real men”.

Traditionally, most people viewed woman abuse as a private matter; but, mainly as a result of the efforts of the anti-violence movements in the 1960s and 1970s, there is now a greater tendency to regard this as a public issue. Cultural beliefs, and societal values and norms, however, continue to reinforce issues of inequality between men and women. For example, girls are frequently trained to place the needs of others over their own; and, it is not uncommon for both girls and boys to be taught to value males more than females. Also, stereotypes of masculinity commonly equate power with having control over others. Thus, societal attitudes often excuse (and at times, reinforce) woman abuse.


Physical abuse is a major cause of injury to women (due, in part, to the fact that men are often physically stronger than women). Many physical effects of abuse are obvious (e.g., broken bones, bruises, burns, and stab wounds); however, an abused woman also experiences less obvious physiological effects when enduring high levels of stress over long periods of time. This can cause or aggravate existing health problems (e.g., high blood pressure; heart conditions; and, chronic pain). Abuse can also result in very serious, negative impacts to a woman’s emotional and psychological health, including:

  • self blame and/or low self-esteem;
  • constant worry, fear, and/or flashbacks of the abuse;
  • anger and resentment;
  • fatigue, confusion, and/or memory loss;
  • difficulty in forming relationships;
  • sleep disturbances, and a lack of concentration and productivity;
  • anxiety, depression, and/or other mental health issues;
  • self-harming behaviours (e.g., cutting, burning, abuse of drugs and/or alcohol);
  • suicidal thoughts and/or actions.

Abused women (and those close to them) may not recognize the connection between these health problems and the abuse. In fact, women may actually suffer more abuse because their abusers blame them for being too sick, tired, or depressed to look after themselves and their families, hold down a job, and/or meet the demands of the abuser.

Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (2008)
National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (2002)
Ontario Women’s Directorate (2007)
Springtide Resources (2008)
Statistics Canada (2005)


Types of Woman Abuse

Woman abuse comes in many forms, including (but not limited to):

Emotional/Psychological Abuse

– any act that diminishes the woman’s dignity or self-worth, provokes fear, and/or intentionally inflicts psychological trauma on her (e.g., yelling, false accusations, intimidation, degradation, isolating and alienating her from friends or family members)

Physical Abuse

– any unnecessary/unwanted physical contact with a woman which results in bodily harm, discomfort, and/or injury (e.g., hitting, punching, kicking, restraining, choking, assault with a weapon, withholding of food and/or medical care)

Sexual Abuse
– any type of sexual contact, to which a woman does not voluntarily consent (e.g., unwanted sexual touching, rape, forcing her to have sex with others, uttering threats to obtain sex, treating her as a sex object)

Some Other Types of Abuse

  • Coercive Use of Children: e.g., the use of threats or actions to harm the children, or take the children from a woman, in order to control what she does; using visitation with the children as an opportunity to harass the woman
  • Criminal Harassment (“Stalking”): any form of recurring, unwanted behaviour which causes the woman being harassed to have a reasonable fear for her safety (e.g., repeatedly following her, communicating with her, and/or watching her)
  • Financial Abuse or Exploitation: any behaviour that reduces/eliminates a woman’s financial independence and/or financial decision-making abilities (e.g., giving her an “allowance”, not permitting her to work outside of the home)
  • Neglect and Isolation: e.g., not allowing a woman to seek medical treatment, locking her in the house, not permitting her to contact friends or family members
  • Religious, Spiritual, and Cultural Abuse: any tactic that exerts control over a woman’s religious orientation, spirituality, and/or cultural beliefs and practices

Peel Committee Against Woman Abuse (2005)
Shelternet (2004)
Women’s Mental Health and Addictions Action Research Coalition (2007)


Canadian Statistics and Facts on Woman Abuse

  • Women under 25, women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, and women living common-law experience higher rates of spousal violence. (Statistics Canada, 2005)
  • In 2004, nearly 28,000 incidents of spousal violence were reported to the police: 84% of victims were female; 16% of victims were male. (Statistics Canada, 2006)
  • An Ontario study found that women were assaulted, on average, 35 times before contacting the police. (Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., and Wilson, S.K., 1990)
  • There were 31,858 admissions of women and children to shelters (and transition homes) in Ontario, from April 1, 2005 to March 31, 2006. (Statistics Canada, 2007)
  • 20% of women who leave an abusive partner experience continued (and often more severe) violence during and/or after the separation. (Statistics Canada, 1997)
  • One to two women are murdered by a current or former partner each week in Canada. (Statistics Canada, 2002)
  • Approximately 80% of domestic violence fatalities involve men as perpetrators and women as victims. (Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, 2005)
  • 6 in 10 Canadian incidents of spousal homicide involved a history of domestic violence, of which police were aware. (Statistics Canada, 1998)
  • The physical and sexual abuse of women and girls in Canada costs $4.2 billion each year, and includes the following expenses: assistance by social service agencies; criminal justice involvement; lost employment days; and, health-care interventions. (Centre for Research on Violence against Women and Children, 1995)
  • It is estimated that 60% to 80% of children in families where woman abuse occurs, witness the abuse against their mothers, either by seeing or overhearing it. (Jaffe, P., Wolfe, D., and Wilson, S.K., 1990)
  • Every year in Canada, about 360,000 children are exposed to domestic violence. (United Nations, 2006)
  • The emotional and behavioural effects experienced by children who witness violence against their mothers may be similar to those suffered by children who are themselves physically abused. (Suderman, M., Jaffe, P., and Watson, L., 1996)
  • Exposure to violence against their mothers can undermine children’s emotional development, and cause serious behavioural problems in school. (Suderman, M. and Jaffe, P., 1999)


The Warning Signs of Woman Abuse

While most abuse occurs in intimate, heterosexual relationships, it can occur in gay and lesbian relationships as well. The warning signs of woman abuse include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • He continually “puts her down”.
  • He does all the talking, and dominates every conversation.
  • He checks up on her all the time, even at work.
  • He blames her for any abuse in the relationship.
  • He tries to keep her away from her friends and family members.
  • He acts as though he “owns” her.
  • He lies to make himself look good, and/or exaggerates his positive qualities.
  • He acts as though he is superior, and has more value than others in his home.
  • She apologizes and makes excuses for his behaviour.
  • She may become aggressive and angry (especially when someone tries to speak with her about the abuser’s actions).
  • She is nervous about talking freely when he’s there.
  • She is frequently sick, and misses work on a regular basis.
  • She tries to cover her injuries with make-up or clothing.
  • She provides last-minute excuses about why she can’t see her family and friends.
  • She attempts to avoid people she knows, when out in public.
  • She seems sad, lonely, withdrawn, and afraid.
  • She uses drugs and/or alcohol to cope with the abuse.

In addition, the situation may be more dangerous for the woman if:

  • there has been a recent separation;
  • there are child custody and access issues;
  • he has access to weapons;
  • he is convinced she is seeing someone else;
  • he has a history of abusive behaviour;
  • he threatens to harm the woman, her children, her pets, and/or her property.

Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children (2006)
Ontario Women’s Directorate (2007)


Why Doesn’t a Woman “Just Leave”?

  • she fears for her life, or the lives of her children
  • she realizes that leaving the relationship may be more dangerous than staying in it
  • she fears losing custody of her children
  • she is economically dependent on her partner
  • she is emotionally attached to, and/or loves, her partner
  • she believes that children need two parents, and should know their father
  • she has cultural, religious, and/or personal beliefs about commitment to relationships (e.g., marriage is “for better or for worse”)
  • she lacks access to suitable and/or affordable accommodation and/or childcare
  • she has low self-esteem, and feels ashamed and powerless, as a result of the abuse
  • she is isolated, and lacks appropriate support from family, friends, and/or community agencies (e.g., her experiences are minimized or misunderstood)
  • she is pressured by her family and friends to “work it out”
  • she lacks knowledge about her legal rights and the criminal justice system
  • she experiences communication barriers, and is fearful about her immigration status
  • she lacks access to services that are familiar with, or are sensitive to, her culture


The Right Question:

While any of these reasons may answer the question of why some women don’t leave abusive relationships, perhaps this is the wrong question. Why do we evaluate an abused woman’s behaviour, when she is not “the problem”? We should, instead, be asking:

  • Why do abusive men get away with this behaviour?
  • Why do some men think that it’s okay to treat women in ways that they would never treat their friends, bosses, or colleagues?
  • Why don’t abusive men leave their intimate relationships rather than choosing to be violent with their partners? Why should a woman be forced to leave her home when she is abused?
  • Why do some men think that abusing a woman (e.g., calling her names, putting her down, threatening her, and/or physically assaulting her) is “normal”?

Maybe asking about a woman’s behaviour is not simply a question, but a judgement that puts the responsibility for abuse on the individual women who experience it. Perhaps the way to stop woman abuse is to begin asking the right question.

Peel Committee Against Woman Abuse (2005)
Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (2008)


Helping an Abused Woman

You may suspect that a female neighbour, friend, or family member is experiencing abuse, but do not know what to do about it. You may also worry about making the situation worse. Here are some ways in which you can support and assist a woman who is being abused:

  • Increase your knowledge about woman abuse. For example, every time a woman reaches out for help, she is gaining the strength to make more effective decisions. She may, however, be too fearful or confused to take steps immediately.
  • Assure the woman that you believe her, and want to help her.
  • Listen, and let her talk about her feelings and options.
  • If you think she is in danger, tell her.
  • Respect her right to confidentiality.
  • Allow her to make her own decisions without being judged.
  • Don’t criticize her for staying with the abuser; but, share information on how abuse increases over time without intervention, and how it negatively affects the children.
  • If possible, help her to develop a plan to leave her abuser.
  • Give clear messages (e.g., “Abuse is not a loss of control – it is a means of control.”; “Woman abuse is a crime.”; “She does not cause the abuse, and is not responsible for her partner’s behaviour.”; “She cannot change her partner’s behaviour.”).
  • Although police can be asked to accompany a woman back to her home to retrieve personal belongings, encourage her to be prepared for the possibility of leaving home quickly, and for an extended period of time. She should have copies of any important documents at hand, as well as other essential items (e.g., credit cards).
  • Keep in mind that some forms of advice are not useful, and may even be dangerous for her to hear (e.g., suggesting that she go back to the situation and “try a little harder”; convincing her that you should speak to her partner on her behalf; telling her she should stay for the sake of the children).
  • Never suggest that an abused woman seek joint family or marital counselling. It may be dangerous for her, and may not lead to a resolution that is in her best interests.

Education Wife Assault (2000)
Shelternet (2004)