a provincial partnership of community and government focused on increasing safe and effective justice options for women experiencing family violence in Prince Edward Island, Canada

What makes it hard for women to tell someone about abuse they have experienced?

What do women need from the justice system?

Women identified eleven main needs:

Access to help to stop the abuse

Women need access to timely and respectful processes and resources which will support them to break the cycle of abuse. They need to be able to trust that these processes and resources keep them and their children safe from further abuse. The women who participated in the focus groups were more likely to access help if:

  • she knew that she would be respected by the people and processes she looked to for help
  • it was affordable
  • is was in her community or transportation was available
  • accessing the service/process didn't require that she give up other supports, her job, etc.
  • it was in a language she spoke and understood well
  • it was simple to understand (plain language, few and uncomplicated steps to follow)
  • accessing the assistance didn't put her in further danger of being abused

Financial security

For the women who participated in the focus groups, financial security means:

  • being able to support their children without drastically changing the lifestyle that they are accustomed to
  • that the abuser takes his share of the responsibility for supporting the children
  • enough money to ensure that the children have suitable child care, if the mother has to work
  • a dwelling that is hers and the children's with no control exercised over it by her partner
  • to keep her share of the assets that she has worked to build
  • transportation

Prevention of violence

In the experience of the women who participated in the focus groups, a lot of frustration came from the emphasis that the system seems to place on reaction as opposed to prevention. By prevention, women mean:

  • service providers taking responsibility and intervening early/asking questions when they suspect abuse
  • quick responses to violent crisis
  • making sure that men get treatment to change behaviour
  • service providers taking action to help before a crime is committed

Their children's safety

When we asked women what their needs were one of the areas that was discussed most was the need to keep their children safe and support in doing that. When they used the word, "safe", the women meant many different things:

  • safe from all abuse by the abusive partner - not just the forms that are criminal offenses
  • safe from harming themselves, emotionally or physically
  • safe from growing up to have difficulties coping
  • safe from drastic changes in lifestyle
  • safe from confusion about what's happening between their parents

Safety for themselves

When talking about their own safety as a need, the women participating in the focus groups indicated that, in addition to requiring assistance in staying safe from criminal behaviour, they need:

  • protection from subtle harassment
  • a safe place to live
  • processes which do not give the abuser further opportunity to control, abuse her and intimidate her into giving up her rights
  • to be able to count on enforcement of decisions made
  • the victim's safety and preventing further abuse to be the main priorities in sentencing
  • safety from threats of violence against other family members

To maintain family relationships

Some women mentioned that one of the reasons they hesitated in telling someone about the abuse was their need to maintain family relationships. One woman was being abused by her brother-in-law and didn't want to hurt or lose the support of his wife, her sister.


Women told stories of the responses that they received from the justice system, from social services, from community organizations and from others in positions to help. The responses that helped were from compassionate people who understood the dynamics of abuse and who listened to them and believed them. The responses that did not help, not surprisingly, were from the service providers who did not listen, did not believe them and who told the woman "it's your fault" or "it's not as big a deal as you are making it out to be".

In terms of respect, women want:

  • to be listened to
  • to be believed
  • not to be judged or told it's her fault
  • some indication in the sentencing that the court takes her abuse seriously
  • compassion
  • to feel valued as a person/client
  • confidentiality

Support in making changes/breaking the cycle of abuse

The support that women identified that would most help them break the cycle of abuse is:

  • taking action before the violence occurs, when indicators are there and a woman asks for help
  • recognizing the difficulties of joint custody when there is violence and making safe orders
  • providing counselling/information to women
  • keep the abuser out of the victim's home
  • help her to protect her children
  • recognize and understand the cycle so you can better help her
  • provide support for the children to understand what's happening
  • ensure that the process is quick
  • ensure response times to crisis is quick
  • enforce decisions, don't leave it up to the woman
  • empower her to make her own choices
  • don't ask women to make the decision to charge her spouse
  • provide 24 hour services (crisis may not occur between 8 and 4 on a weekday)
  • someone to take care of you if the abuser was your caregiver
  • don't overwhelm the woman by complicated processes or by making her repeat her story over and over
  • believe her
  • be open to talking about abuse and let clients know that
  • be compassionate

The women also identified support from family and having someone you trust to tell about the abuse is extremely important.


Information and education was a need identified by women, not just for themselves, but for others, as well. For the women themselves, they need information about:

  • what constitutes an abusive/healthy relationship
  • where to go for help
  • how to protect themselves financially (from the start) in a relationship
  • ideas for preventing stranger abuse
  • parenting education for families in crisis
  • that its not her fault
  • clear information about options
  • what options are available if orders made, etc. don't work

For the abuser:

  • understanding about the impact of his behaviour on his victims

Police, judges, social workers, lawyers need education about:

  • how to properly use the present legislation
  • the cycle and dynamics of abuse
  • how to work with an abuser
  • how to be compassionate, less judgmental
  • how to support a woman who has been abused

Family and general public need education about:

  • the cycle and dynamics of abuse

The abuser to be held accountable

Participants in the focus groups felt that sentences need to send the message that violence against women is a serious crime.

the ability to have some control over the process

The focus group participants indicated that they need to be have ways to hold service providers accountable if they are not treated with respect or if they are given inaccurate information.

How could the justice system better meet the needs of women?

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