Toula Drimonis: Next step in shielding women against violence

Montreal’s Shield of Athena marks 32nd anniversary with fundraiser for existing services and new Second Step transitional shelter.

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In ancient Greek mythology the goddess Athena is depicted as a protectress, armed with both shield and spear. This explains the name of Montreal-based Shield of Athena, which started out as a resource for Montreal’s Greek community in 1991 and, over the past 32 years, expanded to offer culturally sensitive intervention, support, prevention and accompaniment to women and children victims of family violence in no fewer than 16 languages. In a multicultural city like Montreal, their services are lifesaving.

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I’ve been a longtime admirer of the organization for the invaluable work they do in community outreach and public awareness campaigns, helping women who face language barriers, social isolation, lack of funds and information about existing resources. They’ve now seen an increase in precarious status or sponsored women, refugee claimants and asylum seekers who need help. The organization’s main mandate is to accompany abused women, essentially demystifying the social and legal services network to women unfamiliar with both. While the non-profit is recognized for its special advocacy services, the women they help include francophones and anglophones.

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As a journalist I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written about the topic of gender-based violence over the course of my career. It’s easy to keep writing about it because it keeps happening.

According to 2019 Quebec police data, women represent 76 per cent of victims of domestic violence. At least 13 women and six children were killed in Quebec in 2022 because of intimate partner violence.

The issue isn’t limited to Quebec. After a triple femicide in Ontario this past August, Canada’s justice minister referred to the country’s gender-based violence as an “epidemic.”

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“I began in this field over 30 years ago and it pains me that the issues we’re dealing with are still the same,” executive director Melpa Kamateros tells me.

I’ve often heard that slightly discouraged yet forever determined tone before from advocates. These tireless crusaders fight to raise awareness while trying to extract funds from governments often reluctant to acknowledge the severity of the problem and loosen the purse strings.

On Nov. 17, the Shield of Athena is holding a 32-year celebration and fundraiser for their emergency shelter and Second Step resource, a project 13 years in the making.

Slated to open in 2024, Second Step will be one of the biggest transitional shelters in Quebec, with 17 apartments offering integrated services and a community kitchen to accommodate between 35 and 50 people and families at a time. Quebec lacks in transitional shelters and social housing.

“The biggest issue we have when women leave the emergency shelter is what to do with them and where to send them after,” explains Kamateros. “If a woman leaves the emergency shelter with nowhere to go, there’s a heightened probability she’ll return to a violent partner.”

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Second step shelters protect women during the first year after separation in case of post-separation violence. Studies show a victim of domestic violence is most at risk while attempting to leave the abusive relationship. “Their purpose,” she says, “is twofold: assure security and confidentiality and help women develop autonomy. The stay can be anywhere between one and two years and helps them transition into a life without abuse.”

Equality of access to services remains a problem. Too many women fall through the cracks. “We’re overloaded, underfunded, and working at capacity,” she says.

With the fundraising campaign, the non-profit aims to raise $5 million within the next five years to cover ever-increasing expenses, complete construction of the transitional shelter, and assist with emergency shelter renovations.

“The highest percentage of women we see in shelters are younger women between the ages of 22 and 44,” Kamateros says. “Despite the women’s movement, despite all sorts of public awareness, the problem isn’t going away.”

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X (formerly Twitter) @toulastake

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