Introduction to A Manual for Opening Russian Transition Houses
by Lee Lakeman
You Russian women so impress me. You who in five short years have taken the notion of anti-rape centres and made it your own. Now you propose to develop Transition Houses with the same enthusiasm. Than you for inviting me to tell a bit about our experience and our current dilemma’s. Perhaps your insights will speed our work. Or perhaps our work can set some sort of path for you. I could write books on the subject and hope I have chosen well which bits to send you.
These feminist institutions are only twenty years old. 1973 Canadian women formed some of the first transition houses and rape crisis centres. In the same year they were popping into existence in England and the United States. These are the nation states where service based feminist political institutions have thrived.
Women generated a second wave of activity in Australia, New Zealand, western and northern Europe and a smattering in other places. As we come to the end of the century, women around the world struggle to find shelters. We all seek houses where we can group as ‘women only’ to escape and recover. In these centres we can strategize and organize against sexist violence and toward equal status for women.
The presence of a Transition House changes every community. Women in the area know that leaving a horrible situation is possible. Not easy but possible. Men very quickly learn that women will leave if the abuse continues. Doctors, nurses, therapists, counsellors in the community come to rely on the availability of a shelter and to rely on the expertise of the women at the shelters. Police suddenly have somewhere to take women who have called for help. Mothers who have children threatened by abusive fathers can remove their children from that danger.
Every existing institution from the police department to the church courts and social welfare departments of government feel the increased pressure from the Transition House to do something effective. The media has a new source of examples and initiatives. Stories emerging from Transition Houses are evidence of the depth of the problem and the efforts of feminists to address this matter of the inequality of women.
Of course it is also true that Transition Houses help to develop that civil society in which women can participate. The Houses like the Rape Crisis Centres provide learning and activity for women of the community: both those women escaping violence and those organising the escape routes. Through the House women are likely to learn of new law reform initiatives, new legal campaigns, new social groups forming, new medical and social work developments. Women grouping at the Shelter create a social pressure for more services and political responsiveness to women as a group even while they create a safer place for violated women. Administering the House creates an opportunity for democratic practice and theory building about social development that is too often out of the experience of average women citizens.
Very ordinary Canadian women operate some 250 independent Transition Houses in Canada. Each offers a public phone line and counselling/advocacy service which advises women how to escape the violence of their husbands or lovers. They also help women hide girl children who have been threatened or sexually attacked by the child’s father or step father.
Most houses have space for ten to twenty women and children at a time. Most families stay between two weeks and two months. The amount of available housing in the community usually determines the length of the stay. The needs of the family for comfort and contact and extra support will modify the length of time they stay.   For instance we once convinced a woman to stay for several months. She was very young herself, and immigrant and her first child less than a year old had been born prematurely. Now she was alone as a parent and was expecting a second child. We decided that we could make a substantial difference in her life by bending our rules about how long to stay. So we did. They are all fine by the way and I had the pleasure of attending the second child’s birth.
The Transition House staff and the mutual aid between residents help each woman cope with her and her children’s actual danger. Our house staff plans security by grouping the women. So each resident is aware and watching for danger from any of the husbands involved. Some houses post their photos for all residents to see. Some rehearse with the current residents what to do if a man comes to the door or window. Some have twenty-four hour staffs and some just have staff on a pager available through the night. Nevertheless, it is the solidarity between women which keeps the men uninformed and out of the building. It is that same solidarity that keeps each woman safe as she comes and goes to various parts of her life. It is never the proximity of the police detachment, or the bulletproof glass that makes the difference.
The big mistake to avoid is the treatment of women as helpless or ignorant. The shelter idea is the mutual aid between adult women some in immediate danger and some not. We are all living in a world that does not treat women equally and leaves all of us vulnerable to being beaten by a husband lover brother or father. Workers must always know and act on the knowledge that it `could have been me’ but instead it was her. Most any improvement in the treatment by authorities is due to our collective public action. It is not primarily due to skill or expertise by the staff woman complaining.
No decision a woman can make will guarantee her safety from wife assault except to avoid being a wife or live-in lover. Even that avoidance choice doesn’t keep her/you/us safe from other forms of violence against women like sexual assault in your home or in your work place. Obviously men have the power to attack. Until men stop raping and beating, women will be living in the belly of the beast adapting as best we can.
Once workers establish each family in the shelter, they put a specific security plan in place such as taking the children out of school or moving schools and securing the woman’s job site from her husband. Staff and residents then need to cope with residual fear and trauma.
Each family must arrange to find new safe housing, move their things, find new schools and jobs and of course cope with the loss of the father who may be dangerous but still loved.   Each woman decides whether to break up the family temporarily or permanently. Whether or not to seek a legal end to the marriage and the parental arrangements. Workers give their opinion especially on her safety and chances of establishing an equal relationship with him anytime in the future. Still, these are her decisions. Staff reminds her that they will respect and work with her either way.   Nothing will keep her perfectly safe and each way she could go will have advantages and drawbacks. Workers must seem open-minded enough for the resident to trust them. Residents need to try out their ideas and strategies on each other and on us. They must feel safe to change their minds. They need to know what we and other residents think best but are encouraged to see the situation for themselves. She/you/we chooses from limited options what she deems best for herself and her children.
Often women leaving abusive men search for therapeutic programs for the men. They would so much like to think of the hateful behaviour as sick. We now have many so called “abusive mens projects.” Men are ordered to them by the courts or men go to them when their wives leave.   None have a success rate that should encourage us.
Many limit their content to the issue of anger management. We know that it is the issue of the value placed on women’s equality that makes the difference. Some men simply do not accept women’s right to equality and some men cannot simply stand up to the social pressure on them to control their wives and daughters. I fear that until we reverse that social pressure to the point that men must account for why they are not active in the establishment of equality and peace, these programs are doomed.
In the Transition Houses we have to let women know the availability of these programs and the dangers inherent in them. Keeping contact with women who return home because of promises that her husband will attend such programs is terribly important. Too often her sense of security is false and she faces increased danger.
Generally only women staff and manage Transition houses. We have had differences of opinion about men managing the projects. Very few would argue for men to work directly with women in the houses. And I for one am not about to give men the power to run these organisations. It seems to me if men want to be supportive there are many things to do which do not require that they immediately be in charge of the whole damn thing.
Workers must be caring individuals who agree not to blame the women for the violence of their husbands. They must model in their own lives a respect for autonomy and responsibility. The best workers also model fun and productivity in a way that encourages women to live life to the fullest. Of course workers who can articulate feminist solidarity have the best chance of encouraging women to stick together for the benefit of all.
The workers share their own stories of escape or endurance or their relief for being safe to this point in their lives. Nevertheless, they always express that until men stop attacking their wives and children none of us can be sure it won’t happen to us or our sisters or our daughters. None of us are secure by virtue of being feminists. None of us can claim a fail proof sensor to detect which men will allow themselves to assault under which conditions.
In most houses a mix of paid and unpaid workers come together on this political project. We have found a mix to be the best arrangement. However, all must be committed to establishing the social, legal, political, economic equality of women. They are all committed to helping women escape the sexist violence which is both a result and a cause of that inequality.
Those commitments are profound and serious. No country on earth yet supports a Justice system or a police force protecting the equality rights of women. So it is almost inevitable that workers should defy authorities at one time or another. Often on a daily basis.
Most houses have a staff large enough to assure at least one on duty at a time and for peak hours of activity to have more workers available. Peak hours are those when women are moving in or out, when families are preparing and enjoying meals together, hours during which children are gathering, hours when support groups or medical and legal appointments are happening.
We operate our best Houses as large cooperatives. Each family has a large bedroom so that they have some private space and space for family intimacy. If the family is large, they might have two rooms. Generally conditions are crowded but not miserable. The daily activity is a little different in each house. Still, in most each mother organizes her own kids for breakfast and lunch using the food and kitchen tools of the Transition House.
Of course in good houses the fridge and cupboards are always available to residents and as full of nutritious food as the staff can arrange. There are abundances of linens and toys and books and basic clothes all begged by the staff from the community at large. We share these resources with women leaving the house to set up a new situation.
In the normal House the big meal of the day is in the evening and is prepared cooperatively between residents and staff. That way they can account for everyone and can experience the solidarity of the group and take some pleasure in the progress of the other residents. At this meal staff try to inject some understanding of the collective nature of our condition. They try to suggest and model possible cooperative solutions to individual needs.
When I left Moscow five years ago, I was en route to India and a conference in Bombay between twenty Indian and twenty Canadian women who fight violence against women. In our discussion about Transition houses the particular brilliance of what has happened in the industrialized west was more clear to me. At their radical best the very women who use these Houses control them. This is not charity work done from above. Not by a higher caste or class. Not by men. Not by those who feel morally superior.   It is political work done to establish the equality of women done by women who want that equality. It is especially necessary to modify the violent impact of that inequality of women.
Of course they will always more fill the houses with poor women: there are more poor women than rich. Women (in the same proportions as the population) from the same classes and races and ethnic groups use the centres as work in and manage the centres. This wave of the movement cannot operate with a “nobles oblige” style or attitude. When houses find themselves with a staff with more status than the residents, the house is drifting astray. Mutual aid requires exactly the opposite.
This attitude shows up too in the linkages between houses and in the links to other womens’ organisations. It is clear in voluntary coalitions from the local to the international level. Feminists connect the women involved with the Transition House to the women trying to affect the medical system for women and to those working against sexual harassment on the job. Houses often have special connections to the anti-prostitution organisations and to those fighting to protect women from reproductive technologies. And of course there is a logical link to the women trying to keep some control of agriculture and water supply.
Hosting tours for women from third world countries including India Nepal Bangladesh is common for us.   Sometimes I wonder what they can take from our models. It seems obvious to me that without a social safety net for instance a guaranteed source of some money from a welfare program that Transition Houses have limited usefulness. Without money for food and shelter, women have no way to leave them. The Transition House cannot serve the transition function.
We have had to reconsider this during the last five years. Our national government has changed the Canada Assistance Plan Act and replaced it with legislation which does not assure us of the right to welfare. It has also down loaded responsibilities to the provinces inviting regional differences. Multimillion dollar cuts to social programs followed at both the federal and provincial levels. The old CAP act allowed provinces to ask for federal dollars to match every provincial dollar spent on transition houses. That cost sharing is gone now. We have been protesting these changes as a movement.
We claim these are breaches of Canada’s international agreements under the United Nations C.E.D.A.W. (Convention to Eliminate All forms of Discrimination Against Women).
We also claim that our government is failing to live up to the promise of equality in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Canadian Transition Houses have reported this to CEDAW and have complained to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
The Charter promise of equality under the law has been the focus of our activity toward changes in our own criminal justice system. Our charter being ten years old we still have some hope of pushing it into reality.
But the struggle has been arduous. We fought for several reforms to try and protect the records kept by Transition houses after each woman has been there. Defence attorneys seek these records as proof of undue feminist influence on her or proof that she is in some other way discreditable as a witness.
Since we know the sexist bias of the courts, we are struggling to keep out of the court cases any references to her past and private life. We know there is no female herstory that will not prejudice the courts. If she is a virgin, she is suspect. If she is sexually active, she is suspect. If she has no lover or a woman lover, she is suspect. If she has children she is suspect and if she had an abortion she is suspect.
Shelters have had to hire attorneys to defend the integrity of our records or to defend our staff after committing civil disobedience by refusing to produce those records. We refuse to have any of our records used against the women who trust us. At the same time the defense bar left us to fight against the DNA data bank. This expensive replacement of law with cheap thrill science has been a terrible worry to us. The nature of this flawed and inaccurate science is that they need millions of samples to make any identification process work. The government is pressing us to believe this science will solve mystery rape cases and so women should give their own DNA sample in incidents of rape and wife assault. DNA reveals volumes of private and family sensitive information to the government about the accused rapist and about the rape victim. It is not the information feminists need to win court convictions for sexual assault or wife assault.
We know that the identity of the men is rarely the legal question. The legal question is nearly always whether or not he had consent for the violence he did. The next legal question is whether or not the system will excuse him because of some sexist thought pattern; such as the thought she had given consent when he hadn’t asked her. Perhaps he was so drunk he thought he had consent or he was so angry at her that he couldn’t help being provoked by some phrase of hers into beating her. Maybe they could excuse him for being so drunk or stoned that he killed her while acting like an automaton. These are the legal defences we have been fighting.
While we object to the unfair defences of men tried for violence against women, we are also forced to fight for fair trial right for men plus women. Legal aid a system of government funding for lawyers to defend those who cannot afford counsel seems to us a fundamental of criminal and civil justice. Both legal aid programs have been shrinking in Canada to the point of disaster. We are active across the county in the demand to have legal aid available to women seeking divorce and custody and to everyone charged with criminal offenses who has an economic need. We think each should be able to choose a lawyer and have proper legal defence provided.
We do have one enlightened Supreme Court judge, Madame Justice L’Heureux Dube’ who has supported our belief that women are entitled to better protections under the law. She has written minority opinions which help change the public understanding but out progress is very slow.
One rape victim has spent ten years in the courts establishing our right to sue the police. Then she sued the Toronto Municipal Police for failing to warn her of the rapist they were watching in her area. She claimed successfully that they used her and other women as bait for this rapist. Her case has brought more attention to bad policing practices.
In the last few years police have varied their resistance to change. Now in regions where legal policy to arrest men suspected of beating their wives forces them, the police have retaliated by also arresting the women. Mothers who complain of incest in civil family courts during divorce proceedings are accused of cheating their husband of due process by bypassing the criminal courts. They call them the `unfriendly parent’ said to be alienating the affection of their children and therefore threaten them with loss of legal parental custody. When police don’t want to deal with women complainants of rape, they threaten to charge the women with mischief for false reporting.
Beside the Jane Doe victory against the police stand other successes of women. We are forcing public officials to establish public inquiry processes. Sometimes a progressive person holding a bureaucratic post such as a coroner examines a particular death for the social causes and for government responsibility. Sometimes we so outrage the public over the death of yet another estranged wife that politicians can be forced to appoint and fund special political inquiries.
We have had several now and the similarity of the recommendations coming forward is striking: more police accountability, more cooperation with and more funding of feminist services being the most obvious.
In both types of Inquiries feminists participate as “amicus curiae” or as `experts’ on violence against women or as spokeswomen/ interveners for equality seeking women’s groups who assert an interest in the case. The power of the situation is that the press reports us all. Sometimes a community panel or jury who have less resistance to the truth than more powerful players in the criminal justice system are overseeing the process. In those cases real change is possible.
Through these investigations we have put substantial pressure for police to account for their inaction or inappropriate action in response to women calling for help. We have exposed the inadequate protection of women in the general population but also the extraordinary abandonment of women from immigrant communities and women living in poverty. We have also pointed out the hostile and obstructionists’ response of police to women’s advocates. We can only hope such exposure will hasten change.
These public processes are adding to the call for more police accountability overall. We are searching for models of public accountability that will enable women to complain effectively. We need to complain when one officer behaves badly or contravenes policy but also to complain effectively about the allocation of resources and the setting of policy.
For instance we would argue that police should stop harassing prostitutes and instead spend that labour and resource on arresting batterers. Stop bothering harmless homosexuals and instead do proper investigations of men committing sexual harassment on the job or harassing an ex-wife. We would like to have some influence as the public are being told that policing methods are changing in Canada from a more American paramilitary style to what they dub “community policing”. What we observe is the same old methods and a withdrawal of emergency response teams just as women are calling them more frequently to interfere in violence from husbands.
The political climate for anti-violence work in Canada has changed considerably in the last few years. The last three federal Justice Ministers have all claimed to abhor violence against women and to be supporters of the Transition Houses and Rape Crisis Centres.
We see an ambivalent response. Since they think the voters conservative, their public policies and procedures continue to support Law and Order approaches rather than the approach of Social Development. They propose longer sentences for extreme acts of violence or to suspend civil liberties for those repeatedly arrested.   Feminists recommend neither of these.
For Five years now I have hosted an annual consultation with the Justice Minister for some sixty delegates from across the county. I choose the delegates from the frontline organizations and the nation equality seeking groups and I set the agenda for our side. The government pays for our transport and accommodation in Ottawa and for translation. We meet for three days. The first two we are alone as women working on the subject. On the third day we meet with the Minister and his or her officials to convey our opinions of the current situation. It is always a difficult and tense meeting. Women are of course very angry with the lack of government progress on the subject and express displeasure when they detect hollow agreement from elected officials and highly placed bureaucrats. It has been enormously useful to see what is and is not in the way of useful reforms. I recommend it as a forum for debating what is to be done.
Our federal government faces us with some new trends in recent years. For instance there is a very positive initiative underway to reduce the number of prisoners. A noble undertaking since we have far too many incarcerated, but the plans are flawed. Cost saving intentions motivate them rather than intentions to rehabilitate. They have no basis in community development only in budget cutting.
They never examined them for the impact on women. Not even for any violent impact on women. The government decided that crimes for which they would normally jail a prisoner for less than two years are not serious and therefore should not involve jail.
Christians involved in Restorative Justice reform movements understood these government policy changes as positive until they realized that government allocated no new money to supervision or support of these offenders in the community. Men will commit the offense again since conditions haven’t changed . . .
Government officials both elected and bureaucratic claimed they would exempt cases of wife assault or other crimes of violence against women. They cannot maintain false assurance. The courts are saying that they must give violence offenders the same exemption from jail. According to the law the courts are supposed to discern when men are potentially violent risks to the community and apply the jail sentence but of course they do not. One judge claimed for instance that a man who raped his teenaged daughter was no risk to the community at large. Implying that either she is not a member of that community or rape is not violence. That man served his sentence in his own house where the girl lived too.
We are perilously close to decriminalizing violence against women and criminalizing acts of self defence against that violence. We already over charge as criminal, women who defend themselves from poverty with petty acts of fraud or prostitution.
A second very dangerous government policy is the directive that all matters are to go to mediation, Alternate Dispute Resolution rather than litigation. This is essentially a privatization policy. What crime was once considered an offense against the whole community is now argued to be a matter between the offender and his victim. We say that rape and the fear of rape are control mechanisms that serve to keep all women from exercising our freedom and responsibilities. The man who rapes or batters has offended more than one woman and more than one man is benefitting from the terrorism.
We find ourselves with prosecutors who propose mediation between rapist and rape a victim, judges who order mediation between separating husbands and wives with no way of detecting those marriages which included violence and counsellors proposing curative counselling mediation between incest victims and their fathers. In all these cases they flatly ignore the unequal social legal economic starting position of women in relation to men. Add to this the process of treating women unequally for which the justice system is renowned and we have a recipe for oppression and therefore for the dangerous promotion of violence against women.
I am happy to say that when the government conducted its own survey of its citizens, it found our Transition House statistics on violence against women to be conservative.
Perhaps that is why we now debate how to fight violence against women not whether it exists. Still, one provincial government commissioned a private consultant to compose a report arguing that Transition Houses were unnecessary. They met such overwhelming opposition from the houses and from the public that they have at least temporarily backed down. But most regional or provincial governments are squirming to get out of funding these houses and instead would happily increase the police force budget or the hospital budget with no changes for women. The public however remains supportive.
We have managed to secure some government money for projects that may interest you and which may offer us greater chances for collaboration. One such project involves connecting twelve anti-violence centres across the county by paying a half time salary in each and equipping that worker with a computer and Internet account. Through that project called CASAC Links we will build a CASAC web site on the WWW on which we will post our work and campaigns and through which we expect to be to talk with you. Several of our members are building sites of their own. My own home centre is to be found on the world wide web at
We also secured some money toward a conference at the millennium on Violence Against Women. We will be inviting some Russian women if we mange to raise the rest of the money. It is time to trade understanding and achievements don’t you think?
Meanwhile, we are all developing the Women’s World March Against Poverty and Violence. We are especially proud that we are organising it from Quebec and with our sister organisation La Federation Des Femmes Des Quebec. We have endorsed the action and are participating on the Canada wide organising committees. Personally I plan to end the march at the United Nations building and the World Bank offices in New York. I can only hope some of you will be there to share the moment.
In June of this year I will speak to the current workers at the first house I operated in Woodstock Ontario. They have invited me back to celebrate an anniversary and to evaluate where we have been as a group of transition houses. I will be happy to tell them that the women I met in Moscow find our ideas useful and our experience illustrative. It will bring them pride and confidence to continue I am sure.
Still, genuine evaluation is difficult and painful. We must face and acknowledge so many terrible conditions of women. We face terrible failures to save all the lives and prevent all the bruises. Sometimes I wonder how men sleep at night if they are not actively supporting us. Nevertheless, we also can claim that there are women alive and fighting because of these houses. They have escaped indignities. Some children got out early and so did not have to see their mothers beaten.
No one doubts that the consciousness of the world has changed in this twenty years of work. Public opinion has shifted. They have less agreement that a man should be able to beat and abuse his wife and children without interference. We have built a wider base from which we can all demand the peaceful freedom of women.