I had known my girl friend for many years. We had formed a close bond since my arrival in Montreal, our families socialized on a regular basis and our children grew up playing together. She seemed to lead a perfectly normal life in a middle-class home complete with big car and big smiles in the annual Christmas photos.
Until, one day, she knocked on my door and I could barely recognize her. Pale and weak, she was a mere shadow of herself. Stunned, I asked what was wrong and, amidst streaming tears, she revealed that she had been subjected to a life of perpetual martyrdom during her 15 years of marriage and that her husband had raped her emotionally and physically, even to the point of threatening her life.
I was shocked. How could my friend from across the street, a successful corporate lawyer, who, along with her husband, a CEO in a big international company, formed an enviable power couple that looked to fit so well together, be hiding so much violence and so much pain? Immediately, I offered her a place to stay and, a few days later, when she had composed herself, took her to a skilled family lawyer to begin divorce proceedings.
This story awakened me from the deep slumber of my orderly life. Soon, I began to come across other similar tales of human excess and it was then that I realized that behind every locked door of every house hid a potentially unknown story.
I became aware, that, according to Statistics Canada, half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16, an alarming number for a society that claims to be progressive and vocal about the equality of the sexes and human rights.
My experience was greatly enriched by a recent visit to the "Shield of Athena," an organization created to offer support, guidance and shelter to women who suffer physical and mental violence within their family environment. Founded in 1991, "The Shield of Athena" has provided the women of the Greek and other ethnic communities of Montreal with information and assistance through a public awareness campaign in their language of origin.
Its director, Melpa Kamateros, explained that the organization was formed by a group of Greek women in order to offer services to the women and their children who are victims of domestic violence.
"At first, we began with the Greek community but now we serve women from 17 different ethnic communities as our social workers and personnel speak 17 languages.
We are a non-profit organization for victims of family violence that provides emergency shelter and professional services to battered women and their offspring. Our support, intervention and prevention services are culturally and linguistically adapted to meet the needs of most of Montreal's major ethnocultural communities."
Melpa Kamateros goes on: "At first, we had to confront the dilemma of Greek battered women who were reluctant to discuss the violent situations at home, partly because they did not speak the language but also because it was a social stigma to divorce their husbands. However, the extreme violence of men who are alcoholics or addicted to violence often ends up forcing these helpless ladies to seek out "The Shield of Athena."
"Eventually, we were able to develop extended support services and counselling for the victims. We hired skilled professional social workers to listen to the women's problems and provide them with psychosocial support. Also, with our access to a team of professional lawyers and knowledgeable bureaucrats, the organization supports those who seek legal action and state resources in their quest to escape from an environment that is very violent," she concludes.
In extreme cases of violence, "The Shield of Athena" provides shelter for the battered women and their children for a limited period of time. There, they can stay during a transitional period until they recover mentally and find their way back to a normal life. The shelter can accommodate a few mothers and children at the time and it's often the police, the community or a friend who will bring the victims to us. Today, 40 percent of the women are of Greek origin while 60 percent come from other communities as the new ethnic communities are experiencing serious problems of domestic violence. "The Shield of Athena" has broken the language barrier with our social workers and liaisons able to provide guidance in 17 languages.
On the occasion of International Women's Day, which was celebrated March 8th, it is sad that violence against women and children still lurks in the developed countries. However, I would like to say that violence is not a shame for those who suffer it but that it is shameful for those who practice it.