Helping newcomer women overcome gender-based violence

For African-born journalist Naija*, the abusive way her husband treated her was a “normal” everyday experience. “I faced years of domestic violence in my marriage, which at the time I never perceived to be abuse based on the culture and beliefs in my country,” she says.

But Naija realized she had to do something when she saw the situation through her children’s eyes. “I never knew how much impact and effect it had on my children until that turning point when I saw the fear in my daughter’s eyes when she looked at me and asked “Is daddy really going to kill us?”

Naija was scared and started having panic attacks. “Nothing made sense to me anymore besides my children,” she says. A recent newcomer to Canada, Naija turned to the Stopping the Violence counselling program at DIVERSEcity for help.

“The support I received made me identify what I was feeling and going through, and also see that I wasn’t alone,” Naija says. “It has given me tools on how to process and get better with self-care, and given me the sense of value that I actually matter.”

Gender-based violence programs at DIVERSEcity

Golnoosh, a counsellor at DIVERSEcity (pictured above) with experience supporting women through the Stopping the Violence program, understands how traumatic gender-based violence can be, especially for a newcomer still finding their way in a new country.

“In our counselling approach at DIVERSEcity, we acknowledge the effect of trauma on their physical, emotional and mental health, and in their decision-making,” she explains. “We are there to empathize, listen and ask solutions-focused questions, which provide the women the chance to explore their options.”

When dealing with trauma, “it can be overwhelming,” she adds. “We support women in dealing with their worries and anxieties, identifying sources of strength and safety, while creating an empowerment goal and next steps.”

This counselling approach is based on the Roots of Safety service planning model, which provides culturally safe and respectful safety planning for newcomer women and their families.

“Our counsellors understand that there’s a lot of intersectionality when a client comes to us, including their country of origin, language, immigration status or poverty,” says Golnoosh. “We look at each individual from a unique perspective. We let them tell us who they are, the prejudices they have experienced back home and in Canada, as well as their accomplishments and what’s important to them.”

Helping women find their voice

DIVERSEcity counsellors also help clients face their biggest fears. “Many cases have stayed with me throughout the years,” says Golnoosh. “One who was referred from our refugee programs at DIVERSEcity met with me once and didn’t come back. She met with me again a year later, and didn’t come back. She told her case worker that she was so afraid of speaking up because their partner, who was the perpetrator, said the situation should be resolved within the family only and threatened them: ‘If you speak up, the children will be removed from the home.’”

“This threat is unfortunately not uncommon, and a fear that newcomer women, in particular, face. Even if they just come to counselling once, we try to plant the seed that will eventually flourish somehow.”

It took years for this client to finally remove herself from that abusive relationship, find a new place to live, go to court for a no-contact order, while supporting the children on her own. “The way she grew and conquered all the challenges was so amazing. She had to speak up for her own rights and found her voice,” says Golnoosh.

With the help of DIVERSEcity, Naija, too, has found her path and the road ahead is full of hope. “I’m looking forward to a beautiful peaceful life with my children,” Naija says, adding that she would like to help other women suffering in domestic violence situations in any way she can. “I would say to other women to take that first bold step and the rest will follow. You are stronger, equipped and more valuable than you think.”

Learn more about DIVERSEcity’s Stopping the Violence and gender-based violence programs here.

*Name changed for privacy.

Photo: DIVERSEcity counsellor Golnoosh helping clients virtually during COVID restrictions.