Despite the increasing diversity of rural communities, there are a number of ways in which rural living is very different from urban living. These factors can have a significant impact on how women who live rurally experience abuse and the options that are available to them.
Much of the information in the following post draws from our experience as trainers with Ontario’s Family Court Support Workers, many of whom are located in rural communities across the province. We also draw on Ontario Rural Woman Abuse Study, a study that examines the experiences of rural women in Ontario who were in abusive relationships.
Whether it is a question of getting to a grocery store, a doctor’s appointment, recreational activities, school, a religious institution or a friend’s house, distance is an issue for everyone living in a rural community.
For those living in the countryside, walking to any of these destinations is seldom a practical option. Small towns offer some services and activities within walking distance for those who are able, but people requiring specialized services will have to travel some distance to find them.
Women living in or trying to leave abusive relationships are affected by distance. If they do not have their own vehicle, they will be very limited in their ability to, for example, meet with a lawyer or talk with a counsellor or therapist. Even if they have a car, their responsibilities at home may make it difficult for them to travel any distance. The abuser may monitor their use of the car (e.g. by checking the odometer, using GPS, getting reports from neighbours). Not surprisingly, police response times are affected by distance too. Increasing numbers of communities and rural areas are served by police detachments that are many, many miles away and that are not staffed 24 hours a day.
Lack of public transportation
The lack of public transportation in rural communities compounds the challenges posed by the distances to many services, supports and activities.
While this creates significant and obvious practical challenges for women living with abuse, it also creates psychological challenges.
Women feel isolated and trapped, as though there are no options available to them.
Women without their own car must rely on friends and taxis. Friends may not always be available when needed or may not be a safe option. What if they tell others or even the abuser about what the woman is doing?
Taxis are expensive and also interfere with a woman’s privacy, since the cab driver will know her destination and might tell others. Time can be a factor, too. As one woman in the Ontario Rural Woman Abuse Study said: “What happens if you don’t have a vehicle and you have to call a call a taxi? That’s at least an hour. By that time, it might be too late.”
Limited communication technology
While cell phone use has become de rigueur in highly populated parts of the province, no such option is available yet for women in many parts of Ontario. There are areas of the province where there is no cell phone reception at all and many others where reception is unstable and unreliable.
Some communities still offer landline telephone service only through party lines, which eliminates any privacy for a woman in terms of phone calls for help or information.
In isolated parts of the province, virtually every call is long distance, meaning, for example, a woman would not be able to call her lawyer without the charge showing on the monthly phone bill.
Many rural communities do not have high speed Internet access, which can limit women’s ability to use the internet to gather information or communicate with friends and family. To learn more about the limited Internet access in communities throughout Canada, explore the federal government’s National Broadband Internet Service Availability Map.
Small communities do not offer the range and diversity of services that are available in urban centres. There are few shelters and violence against women services generally, which do the best they can to offer services to women with a diversity of needs, but it is simply impossible for them to be fully accessible to women with different language and cultural needs, ability concerns and so on.
Of course, this lack of services is a challenge to any woman who needs them. For women with mental health or substance use issues, the lack of services can create an insurmountable barrier. If the woman is seen as “difficult,” which often really means she requires more time and effort than other clients, some services may decline to take her on as a client or may not offer as much support as they offer to other clients. In the country, she is not likely to be able to find the specialized services she needs or alternative services when she is turned down by the one she first approaches.
Community counselling programs in rural communities are often unavailable or, where they exist, are available only occasionally. It is not uncommon for services to be offered in a hub in one community, requiring those who live in smaller communities or the countryside to travel to that centralized service. These hub service centres may also raise privacy issues for women who use them.
Limited legal services
Legal services may also be limited and more challenging to access. The courts in many small communities do not operate on a fulltime basis, and court-based services such as duty counsel have limited hours as well.
It may be a long trip for a woman to just get to the nearest family court; a trip she may have to make by bus. In parts of northern Ontario, women must travel up to four hours by bus to get to the closest family court. Judges, duty counsel rotate over long distances or fly in: which means they may not be familiar with the community.
There are few lawyers practicing full time in small towns and rural communities. In the most remote parts of the province, there are no local lawyers at all. Lawyers in rural communities are often generalists who practice in many areas of law, but don’t have a focus on or specialty in family law. In addition, lawyers with specialized training in violence against women are few and far between, which can leave a woman with few options in terms of finding a lawyer who has the necessary skills and expertise for her case.
Adding to the challenges is the fact that some abusers visit every lawyer in the community for a “consultation.” Even if the abuser does not hire those lawyers, they are now conflicted out and not able to represent the woman. When there are no available lawyers where a woman lives, she must either travel, sometimes a great distance to meet with one or wait to see one who comes to her community on set dates.
Women who need a lawyer, and agencies serving them in rural and remote communities, are encouraged to contact us to book an appointment in our Virtual Legal Clinic, which provides free family law summary advice to abuse survivors.
Cities provide a certain amount of anonymity. While this can make cities seem cold at times, the privacy it affords a woman who does not want her abusive partner knowing what she is doing, where she is going or who she is seeing can be very helpful.
There is no such protection in small communities. If there is only one family law lawyer in town, neighbours will see the woman’s car parked outside the office, and speculation begins. If a woman appears at church with bruising on her face or a cast on her arm, rumours swirl.
Anything the woman does that is out of her usual pattern of activity will be noted and, in many cases, reported back to her partner or former partner.
This can make it very difficult for a woman to take any steps to leave her partner or even to gather basic information to help her decide on the best course of action. Her fear level may escalate as she worries about what other people may be saying behind her back or to the abuser.
Ironically, this lack of privacy can make a woman feel very alone in her abusive situation, isolated from getting help or making changes in her life.
Nosy neighbours can be a real irritation. However, being reasonably close to other people can enhance the safety of a woman with an abusive partner. For example, a woman in an urban centre can run to a neighbour’s home or a public place if she needs to flee her partner in the midst of an assault. A woman who lives on a farm is less likely to be able to do so: the driveway into her house alone may be a kilometre long, and the distance on the main road to a neighbour far too long to travel on foot, especially if she has young children with her or the weather is inclement. Isolation can also be psychological. A woman who cannot easily drop in on a friend or neighbour or even a store for some casual conversation can quickly feel as though she is alone in the world with nowhere to turn for support or help. This can reinforce the abuser’s power over her.
While firearms are not the most commonly used weapon in domestic homicides, abusers with guns often threaten to use them. These threats carry an air of reality and have an impact on women’s responses to other abusive behaviours of their partner.
As one woman said in the 2000 study: “One day he told me I was going to be a hunting accident. We were up in the bush 40 miles away, with the two children and the gun and all those bullets.”
There are more firearms in rural homes than in homes in urban areas. And, guns are used more often in rural domestic homicides than they are in urban domestic homicides.
According to a 2008 study on firearms and family violence in rural communities in Canada by the Canadian Firearms Centre, people in rural communities have strong, positive attachments to firearms “which are associated with a long-standing tradition of hunting.” The presence of firearms in rural homes “is normalized because people do not regard them as weapons.”
As a result, there is a high level of unsafe storage of firearms in rural homes, which makes them easier to pull out and use in a threatening manner. This research found that 66% of women who said there were firearms in their home said this made them more fearful for their safety and 70% said it had an impact on their decisions about whether to tell others about being abused or seek help. 83% who knew the guns were loaded said they were fearful. 45% said their partner had deliberately threatened to harm their pets or farm animals and of those, 41% said their partner did harm or kill the animal.
The abuser’s position
The power of the abuser in the community is an issue for women regardless of where they live. Even in a large city, if the abuser is seen as a leader or if his job has status in the community, this will make it more difficult for the woman to seek help.
Women’s fears about not being believed will be intensified in rural communities, simply because of the smaller population. For example, the abuser may be not just a police officer, but the only police officer in the community. Or, he may be a popular local politician or business owner or may be known for his volunteer contributions to the community.
Animals are a significant presence in rural families, whether as pets, working farm animals or livestock. For a woman who has been isolated from family and friends, her pet may be her greatest support. Animals can be unwitting tools in the hands of an abuser who will threaten to kill pets as a means of emotionally controlling the woman or who will threaten to or will kill or neglect livestock as a means of both financial and emotional control.
For more information on this topic, watch our webinar, Supporting women who live in rural and remote communities.