Decades ago, Dee Adekugbe found herself in a shelter, escaping an abusive relationship. The abuse she endured was so severe she had to change her identity to regain control of her life and start over, she says.
After her own experience with intimate partner violence, Adekugbe is working to spread awareness about domestic abuse in African immigrant communities in Canada. She is the founder and executive director of Ruth’s House, which opened in late February 2022 in Calgary, Alberta. Its work involves education, prevention, intervention, and providing counselling and emergency shelter services, among many things, to those in need.
“I have children. I have four girls and two boys. I don’t want to find out in 10 years time that my daughter is going through domestic abuse. I don’t want to find out in 10 years time that my son is going through domestic abuse, or is a perpetrator,” she says.
“We have to put an end to it in our community one day. And I thought, ‘You know what? That one day starts today.’”
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In 2020, Global News reported that calls to police and family-violence helplines dropped in Calgary after the city went into lockdown, because victims experiencing domestic violence were stuck at home with their abusers. Experts have called this rise in domestic violence a “shadow pandemic.” While the levels of abuse increased during this time, there was also an increase in informal support.
At the beginning of the lockdown, Adekugbe says she started receiving calls from women who were struggling at home with their partners.
She took to social media to speak out and offer help. “We helped as many women as we could. We would — myself and my husband — go and pick up somebody [late at night], who is in a bad way, and put her in an Airbnb; put one in a hotel; just really help as many people [as we could] and not just help the women and the children, but also make sure that their husbands — the perpetrators — are also connected with [a place] where they can get help,” Adekugbe says.
Eventually, Adekugbe decided that to continue sustainably, she needed funding, and the work needed to be done more openly.
According to Statistics Canada, while domestic violence occurs across all demographics, regardless of race or culture, research shows that experiences of intimate partner violence differ across populations “in terms of prevalence, characteristics, and impacts on victims.” While the majority of domestic violence victims are women, men in heterosexual relationships can also be victims.
Adekugbe says the immigration process, particularly the pressures of making it in a new environment, can lead some to take out their frustrations in the home.
Racism, language and economic barriers — including the devaluation of foreign credentials — as well as the loss of community are stressors that newcomers often have to overcome. Newcomers may be blindsided and disillusioned by the contrast in the standard of living between their country of origin and new home.
The shift in the domestic division of labour can also be disorienting for some men who may see child rearing as beneath them, for example. She says “that is something that a lot of men are struggling with — the fact that women are rising up when they come here. They see that they are also valued, they are also resourceful, they are also needed. And they don’t have to just sit there and just be submissive and manipulated. They have a voice.”
Cultural erasure is at stake
While taking pride in Africa’s rich history and traditions, Adekugbe believes domestic violence in the diaspora is a barrier to the community’s well-being. She doesn’t want African immigrants overrepresented in shelters (ideally, not at all), or stereotyped as aggressive.
In a 2018 CBC article, Sherri Borden Colley reported on the need for Black children in care to be fostered and raised with Black families. When African children end up in the system due to domestic violence, the community is at risk of cultural erasure. When placed outside of their kinship group, children are often isolated due to anti-Black racism, they lose their traditional language, and face communication barriers while also adjusting to unfamiliar foods. Integration isn’t always as simple as trying something new, especially for a child.
Adekugbe says the goal is to make sure that the children are placed within the community where their trauma can be minimized.
The medical impacts of domestic violence, supporting victims and abusers
Domestic violence has lasting intergenerational effects.
Dr. Eyitope Roberts, a family physician of over 30 years, is a board member at Ruth’s House. She says that victims of domestic abuse are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, overeating, diabetes, and high blood pressure, among many other “physical manifestations of domestic abuse.”
Children who experience childhood abuse and/or grow up witnessing domestic abuse also suffer long-term effects, Roberts says, citing the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. These impacts include a heightened risk for drug and alcohol abuse, dropping out of school, heart disease and a range of mental-health issues.
No one dreams of becoming an abuser, Adekugbe says. However, by exposure or the first-hand experience of abuse, in addition to the internalization of gendered or ethno-cultural norms that prohibit emotional expressiveness, an abuser may conclude that the only way to resolve conflict is to resort to violence.
While both formal and informal support, as well as major systemic overhauls, are a part of the solution, abusers need to be accountable and seek help.
Adekugbe says that every single person in the community has a role to play. “If you know somebody’s in trouble, somebody is going through something, let them know that there is help in the community.”
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