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Reena Sommer, Ph.D.

University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba
John Fekete, Ph.D.
Trent University
Peterborough, Ontario

A paper presented at the 4th International Family Violence Research Conference, July 22, 1995


In November, 1993, Statistics Canada released the findings of the Violence Against Women Survey (VAWS). Since then, the survey has been hailed by government ministers as well as the mass media, as the definitive research on the topic. Among the many findings, Stats Can reported that 51% of women had been abused by a man at some point since the age of 16 years. This, and the statement that "measures of violence for the VAWS were restricted to Criminal Code definitions of assault and sexual assault" left the public with the impression that the average woman living in Canada was at risk of ongoing assaults by men of a magnitude similar to that seen at women's shelters.

This paper addresses flaws in the survey's design, sampling and method of reporting which have led to a gross distortion in public's perception of the problem of violence against women. By reviewing the information contained in the User's Guide for the VAWS, we demonstrate that both what is contained in, and also what was omitted from the report contribute to this distortion. Among the issues discussed are: (1) the nonrepresentative nature of the sample, (2) the use of "double barrelled" questions, (3) the interchangeable use of % of women and % of marital relationships, (4) the use of projected figures to represent findings without indicating what proportion of the population sample represent, (5) the neglect of the finding of a low level of victimization of women in the immediate 12 months prior to the survey, (6) the methodological backwardness of a one-sex victimization survey of the general population, and (7) the mis- impression created by use of Criminal Code definitions as measures of abuse. We conclude that the Stats Can survey trivializes the experiences of women who are victims of serious abuse and impedes our understanding of the nature of intimate and conflictual relationships in contemporary society.


As a preface to this discussion, I would like to point out that while the issues raised in this discussion originate from John Fekete and myself, there is consensus among a number of academics whose backgrounds include anthropology, physiology, political studies, psychology, sociology and family studies that Statistics Canada created a picture of violence against women that is inconsistent with the experiences of the general population of women living in Canadian. This consensus is not only based on empirical evidence but also on what is considered logical.

It should also be pointed out that Statistics Canada has come under considerable criticism regarding their survey from a number of sources. To date, they have written both John Fekete and myself lengthy letters whose purposes were to answer our criticisms. Unfortunately, neither letter got to the point of our concerns and instead dealt with other peripheral matters.

Stats Canada has emphatically denied any suggestion that the design, sampling and the reporting of the results from their survey was politically motivated. We on the other hand reject such denials, and will demonstrate through several examples drawn from their own report entitled Family Violence in Canada and VAWS codebook that Statistics Canada distorted the public perception of violence against women. The issues I will deal with specifically are:

  • the methodological backwardness of a one-sex victimization survey of the general population

  • the nonrepresentative nature of the sample

  • the use of "double barrelled" questions

  • the interchangeable use of % of women and % of marital partnerships

  • the use of projected figures to represent findings without indicating what proportion of the population sample represent

  • the neglect of the finding of a low level of victimization of women in the immediate 12 months prior to the survey

  • the misimpression created by use of Criminal Code definitions as measures of abuse

Let me begin by briefly giving you some background information about the development of the survey. The VAWS followed soon after the Montreal Massacre in which 14 women were killed by Marc Lepine a man who said he hated women. The VAWS was conducted by Statistics Canada from February to June in 1993. The cost of the project was $1.9 million.

The Objectives of the Survey

  • Provide reliable estimates of the nature and extent of violence against women by male partners, acquaintances and strangers

  • Examine women's fear of violence in order to support current and future federal government activities

The assumptions made by the investigators are:

  • Macleod (1980) report based on the experiences of battered women found that 1/4 are abused

  • Canadian Panel of Violence Against Women (1993) determined that 98% of the women they heard from suffered some form of abuse

  • Uniform Crime Reporting Survey

  • Homicide Survey

  • National Survey on Transition Homes

  • Study on Dating Violence conducted by DeKeseredy and Kelly (1993) found that 81% of female students suffered some form of abuse in their dating relationships

What the investigators ignored however, were:

  • the Canadian and U.S. general population research showing that men and women perpetrate abuse at equivalent rates

  • Although males make up the bulk of arrests for violent crimes, crimes statistics showing that the rate of female arrests for violent crimes from 1983-1993 rose by 130.9% whereas the rate of male arrests for violent crimes during the same time period rose 96.2%. These figures came from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics the same agency responsible for writing the Family Violence in Canada Report that includes the findings of the VAWS

  • Homicide rates which show that depending on the year, females are responsible for 10% to 33% of all murders.

Population The target population for the VAWS was all women 18 of years of age and over in Canada EXCLUDED:

  • residents of the Yukon and Northwest Territories

  • women who spoke languages other than English and French

  • women who held visas

  • women who did not have telephones

  • women with handicaps that interfered with their participation in a telephone survey

Of the 22,319 households contacted, 19,309 were eligible households (86.5%). Of those, 12,300 women completed the survey (63.7% response rate). Their overall response rate not taking into account the women not surveyed in the territories was 55.1%. Most important, excluded from this survey were Aboriginal, Inuit and immigrant women (groups that have been shown to be particularly at risk.

Double Barrelled Questions

We are all too aware that questions that contain two distinct concepts cannot be considered valid. This is because it is impossible to determine whether a respondent is responding to one or both concepts contained within. Examples of these types of questions are:

Now I'd like to read a list of statements that may apply to your PREVIOUS husband(s)/partner(s), and I'd like you to tell me whether each statement describes him/any of them.

Over Inclusive Questions Forced Sexual Activity:

"Since the age of 16, has a MALE STRANGER ever forced you or attempted to force you into any SEXUAL activity by threatening you, holding you down or hurting you in some way" 7.49% (n=921) (weighted factor=741,078)"

Sexual Harassment:

"Sometimes women receive other types of unwanted attention. In this case I mean anything that DOES NOT include touching such as catcalls, whistling. leering, or blowing kisses. Have you ever received unwanted attention from a MALE STRANGER?"
  • ever - 60% (n=7377) (weighted factor=6,278,447)

  • past 12 months - 27% (n=3311) (weighted factor=2,860,403)

Partner Abuse:

The percent noted in this column (48%) represents the proportion of women who had a previous partner and who experienced abuse in that relationship. This constitutes 2216 women or 18% of the sample. What we do see however is a decline in the reports of abuse between past and current relationships indicating that a large proportion of women are freeing themselves of abusive relationships. This point however is missing from the report.

Definition of Abuse in Terms of the Criminal Code of Canada:

Defined according to Section 265 which according to a law professor I consulted with stated these actions have to be without the person's consent. Given that general population research finds that 50% of the abuse reported is mutual and given the findings that there is considerable inconsistencies in husbands' and wives' reports of abuse, we believe that a criminal designation to these behaviours is premature and inappropriate.

Estimates of Abuse:

  • Report highlights the prevalence of abuse but neglects the incidence of abuse

  • Interchangeable Use of % of women and % of relationships

Language of the report:

Over and above the issues already discussed, we found examples of written text which also demonstrate bias in reporting. For example, in the section discussing perpetrators of child abuse and neglect, the following was found:

"While children of either sex were equally likely to be abused by a female perpetrator (53% boys and 47% girls), female children were PREYED UPON BY MALES (my emphasis) in 70% of the cases." (p.78, Statistics Canada, 1993)".


The examples presented clearly suggest that there are a number of problems inherent in the VAWS and in the Family Violence in Canada report which documents its findings. While the sampling technique indicates that not all Canadian women are represented by virtue of the systematic exclusions already noted, we do not view this as the most serious problem since one can place limitations on generalizeability of findings. I might add at this point that this is something that is not done the discussion of their findings. On the other hand, we feel the more serious problem resides in how the results have been presented and more importantly, in the data that have not been presented.

In correspondence I received from Bruce Petrie, the Assistant Statistician from Stats Canada, he states:

"It is our practice to report figures based on the population "at risk". We believe it is more relevant to present figures describing the estimated number of abused women in the population who contacted shelters and not the sample counts of either abused women or all women in the sample."

Given this practice, it appears that the survey did not meet its first objective which was to achieve reliable estimates of partner and acquaintance abuse. Focusing on the "at risk" population does not bring us any closer to understanding the experiences of Canadian women in general than previous research conducted on clinical samples of battered women. In light of the report's focus on chronically abused women,constituting a small proportion of Canadian women, the message delivered by this report and reiterated by the media is the average Canadian woman is at risk of ongoing abuse of a very severe nature.

The data we have presented reflects just a sample of the many ways Statistics Canada distorted the perception of violence against women. Due to time constraints we cannot present them all. An expanded discussion of the distorted perception of violence against women will follow in a paper.

Because of the manner in which the results of the VAWS are reported and the subsequent omissions discovered, we conclude that Stats Can survey trivializes the experiences of women who are victims of serious abuse and impedes our understanding of the nature of intimate and conflictual relationships in contemporary society. Portraying Canadian women as victims of domestic in the face of data which indicate that only a small proportion are affected does little to empower women. We feel that a much better use of the data would have presented a clear picture of family life for Canadian women which according to their unreported data is for the vast majority is violence free. In terms of findings solutions to this very serious social problem we suggest that examining the differences between abused and nonabused women as well as those who are currently abused and others who no longer are abused might be particularly useful. We encourage interested researchers to avail themselves of the data tapes that are now been released for public use.

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