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New awards given to students researching gender-based violence

U of T community members left roses outside Hart House to commemorate the 14 women killed in the Montreal Massacre 28 years ago (photo by Laura Pedersen)

Twenty-eight years ago, 14 women were killed at the École Polytechnique in Montreal by a shooter who claimed feminists had ruined his life. 

Kristina Nikolova had just turned one and Ashley Major wasn't yet born, but the tragedy has had a profound effect on them.

This week, Major, who graduated from law school at the University of Toronto in June, and Nikolova, who acquired a PhD in social work this summer, received $1,500 awards for scholarly achievement for research in the area of gender-based violence. The awards, which were established on Dec. 6 of last year on the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, are reserved for one undergraduate and one graduate student “who have made distinctive contributions in the area of gender-based violence research and prevention.”

'There's definitely hope'

Ashley Major

Working the overnight shift at a women's shelter, Major (pictured left) learned that if the phone rang after midnight, it usually meant a woman was in danger. 

The inconspicuous house with room for 25 people in downtown Regina was a first-stage shelter, the first stop for women and children fleeing abuse. 

They came in the middle of the night with bruises, black eyes and invisible scars. Once Major saw a girl – three-years-old at most – arrive in a full-body cast.

“The male in her mother’s life had thrown her against wall. She was just broken,” Major remembers. “We would carry this poor child in a cast everywhere.”

Major knew since she was a girl that she wanted to be a lawyer and “fight injustice,” but her experience at the shelter gave her a new focus: to combat gender-based violence and the mistreatment of women.

While in law school, she volunteered with the U of T chapter of Pro Bono Students Canada at the All Saints Church-Community Centre, near Dundas and Sherbourne streets, providing basic legal information to sex workers. Many of the women said they needed a legal will, she says. They had friends in the industry who had died, not always because of violence but through causes related to addiction or homelessness.

“There was also a human element to it,” Major says. “There is a level of dignity and respect involved with leaving your estate to someone, no matter its size.”

She led the expansion of a project that paired low-income people with law students and lawyers who could help them draft a legal will. 

In 2015, she worked for Human Rights Watch, in the women's rights division, at their New York office on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building. She scanned news reports for evidence of rights violations and searched legal articles for definitions of international criminal offences.

She is now articling in the Crown criminal law office of the Ministry of the Attorney General, where she does legal research and drafting.

Almost three decades after the Montreal Massacre, she says she's encouraged by the #MeToo movement and other signs that the world is paying attention to gender-based violence, and calling out predators like Harvey Weinstein.

“There's definitely hope,” she says, “but I think there's also great frustration in a country as liberated and progressive as Canada that this is still such an endemic issue.”

A worldwide problem

Kristina NikolovaIn her PhD studies, Nikolova (pictured right) looked at gender inequality and intimate partner violence in low-income countries, identifying factors that put women at greater risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. 

But it grates on her whenever people in the West ignore the injustice facing women closer to home.

“It's always important to remember that all women, regardless of where they are, are at risk of experiencing gender-based violence due to the persistence of attitudes that favour one gender over another,” she says.

“The Montreal Massacre was one event where people could not deny that this inequality exists in Canadian society,” she adds. “However, every year,  sexual violence against women, intimate partner violence, continues to go underreported and under-prosecuted.”

According to the World Health Organization, about 35 per cent women have experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. In high-income countries, the statistic is more than 20 per cent.

In her dissertation in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, Nikolova took a bird's eye view on gender inequality and intimate partner violence in 28 low-income countries. She looked at how gender-specific international and national policies affect rates of intimate partner violence, and also included individual factors such as income and education.

“Poor younger women, with less education, living in an urban area, are more likely to experience all three forms of IPV (intimate partner violence) compared to older and educated women living in rural areas,” she writes in her dissertation. 

One lesson is that “national and international policies matter,” she says, but their usefulness depends on enforcement. “We need to continue international pressure on countries with poor gender-based violence track records to prevent dangerous backsliding,” she says.

Her supervisor, Barbara Fallon, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in child welfare, says Nikolova's research identifies a “significant gap in the social work literature on the need to incorporate macro-level factors in research on violence against women.”

Nikolova is far from done contributing to research on gender-based violence. She is now a post-doctoral associate at the Center on Violence Against Women and Children in the school of social work at Rutger's University, where she was awarded a $400,000 grant as one of the lead researchers on a project investigating a less understood form of intimate partner violence – financial abuse. 

“We are developing a tool to assess women's risk of this type of abuse in order to determine what types of supports and resources survivors of financial abuse need in order to be financially independent,” she explains.