I had prepared some questions prior to the discussion with Marlene Bertrand, a Canadian authority on battling violence against women, but her wide experience easily outstripped them as the dialogue drifted towards an open, public discussion addressing all aspects of violence against women. This seemed a natural progression, considering that Bertrand has spent more than two decades fighting violence against women both in and outside of Canada.

In Canada, she has played a central role in transforming the public’s viewpoint towards violence against women as a private, familial matter to an issue which concerns the society as a whole. She was unequivocal in expressing her views during what was an enjoyable dialogue, translated with our thanks by Pegatha Taylor, a consultant from the Canadian Embassy, who also participated actively in the discussion. Taylor also played a vital role in the success of the workshop which was undertaken by the National Association for the Development of the Role of Women.
The Oasis of Trust
We began the discussion with her observations concerning the “Oasis of Trust” shelter project in Damascus initiated by the National Association. She indicated that the building, though it is superior to many of the refuges she has visited in numerous regions of the world, and is conveniently located in the city center which permits women to access it with ease, suffers from significant limitations.
The structure, which the Association had little leeway in choosing considering that it was the only one available, is comprised of the third floor of a building reached only by climbing a long stairway. This means that it will be very difficult for women suffering from temporary or permanent disability as a result of violence perpetrated against them, in addition to elderly and/or ill women, to climb the 44 stairs that must be scaled in order to reach the shelter.
Similarly, the design of the interior space does not meet some of the standards set forth by Bertrand, who has been responsible for the design of a number of shelters. For example, there are not enough rooms to accommodate the number of potential shelter residents. Also, regarding the Association’s expectation that children will accompany some of the women, this reality should have been taken into account in terms of the space available and suitable for a mother and child. The rooms appear suitable when empty, but the space will turn chaotic and crowded once in use by women and children. In general, it is preferable that shelters always provide a shared space where women can meet and socialize, however this particular shelter space does not abide by this recommendation. Private spaces face the same issue; the shelter does not choose its tenants, so consequently the women represent all social strata and cultural backgrounds, laboring under heavy psychological pressures resulting both from violence, and from being forced to take refuge in the shelter. This means that the women are also in need of a private space where they can rest and feel at ease.
That being said, the ideal design for a shelter would provide for the presence of three main spaces: 1) rooms for small children, which include a play space and a suitable day care; 2) a room for older children, considering that their needs differ from those of smaller children; 3) a private space for the women residents to seek refuge in, in order to ensure a degree of privacy and comfort.
Bertrand indicated that there may exist shelters which meet all of these specifications, as is the case in Canada, where it is possible for a woman to find the shelter most suited to addressing her specific needs.
Case Study: The Canadian Shelter System
As for the issue of costs and funding, all women’s shelters in Canada receive financial support from their regional governments, though this assistance usually varies from province to province. What differs is the method of providing aid, for there are generally two systems: one provides a lump sum of financial assistance each year, while the other provides blocs of financial aid based on the shelter’s specific needs.
In addition to funding the shelters, each regional government is responsible for purchasing the sites suitable for the shelters, constructing them, covering the costs of equipping them with furniture and supplies, and paying all utility bills. Furthermore, the government is fully responsible for all costs associated with providing the shelters with security. Bertrand notes that, based on her experiences within the Canadian shelter system, the infrastructure, funding, and develop of shelters, in addition to their cooperation with civil society, have created a system of oversight. This oversight stems not from doubt in the impartiality of the shelters’ work, but rather the need to keep an eye on the various financial mechanisms.
Bertrand asserts that, in general, the presence of fixed standards, based on trial and error as well as cooperation between the government and an active civil society, is necessary in order for the shelter system to function fully and effectively. And recognizing the importance of the accumulated experience enjoyed by civil society, which has taken a central role in establishing the shelter system, the government of Manitoba province directly requested from Bertrand that she take on a supervisory role.
Canadian shelters house women who are truly in need, though cases may exist in which residents are not in need of help as a result of violence, but rather other reasons such as attaining social services from the state. However, these cases are limited, as most shelter administrations are aware of their designated roles. Furthermore, there are institutions specifically designed to provide for the needs of women arising from non-violence related circumstances. As for women affected by violence who have sought refuge in the shelters, they possess special needs particularly with regards to finding suitable, government-subsidized housing. Therefore, the government has awarded them priority status in obtaining such housing.
No Moral Justification for Violence
Violence against women, as Bertrand points out, is not something which affects just one society, but rather it is widespread in all societies. Everywhere you go, you will find that woman remains a second-class citizen.
However, as one participant asked, isn’t the struggle against violence done to women an invitation to “moral decay”? Haven’t the steps taken in some Western nations to fight such violence led to a prevalence in moral corruption, as asserted by those support violence in the name of "discipline", "safeguarding morals," and "defending the family"?
In response, Bertrand stated that there is no moral value which can act as a justification for violence. Violence in and of itself is unethical.
Perhaps, she continued, I do not particularly like some of the prevailing sexual ethics in our society. However, the depiction of these norms is fraught with exaggeration. In reality, sexual relations comprise just one dimension of the relationships between men and women. I am from a different generation, and the truth is that I look with discomfort at what appears on unregulated television. However, this also represents only a partial reason for all of these transformations in our society. The reality is that life itself changes.
It was not easy for Bertrand to endure an extended discussion, coming at the end of three days filled with activities. Despite this, her smile never left her kind face. If only she had been able to talk with us a bit longer..

Bassam Al Kadi, 22/2/2008, (Marlene Bertrand, a leading authority in defending women against violence: Violence in and of itself is unethical)
Translated by Christine Fergus