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Defenders for Human Rights
Léonie Couture

Léonie Couture Women’s Health and Security

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GRADE LEVELS = 7 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Three 60 minute class periods

As authors of all Speak Truth to Power Canada lesson plans, we strive to support the individual defenders, while also dealing with thematic issues drawn from the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights (UNDHR). Léonie Couture, the founder of Herstreet, has innovatively defined her organizational construct as a ‘relational health centre’ for women, focussing on homelessness. The human right associated to this concept, based on the UNDHR, is that of Women’s Health and Security.

In 1994, Herstreet was launched. One of the primary characteristics of Herstreet is its understanding of homelessness as a state, rather than a situation, with reference to a health condition connected to relationships. The organization views homelessness as an extreme state of relational disconnection from oneself and others, caused by unbearable relational suffering resulting from extremely serious relational injuries. To protect themselves from the pain caused by experiences of rejection, abandonment or other trauma, homeless people eventually cut themselves off from their own identity, a paradoxical mechanism since it exposes them to even greater violence. The organization sees this state of disconnection also as a permanent state of survival.

This view recognizes the coexistence of a number of factors that lead to homelessness, more specifically an interaction between individual and structural factors: childhood abuse, mental illness, dependencies, lack of support from family, friends or society, systemic female poverty, rental costs.

While many characteristics of the homelessness experience are shared regardless of gender, particularly a plurality of issues — dependencies, poverty, recourse to illegality as a source of income — and lack of self-confidence or trust in other people, others are more specific to women. Among these, the organization cites invisibility, greater vulnerability to assault, maternity and the greater likelihood of an abusive past.

Unhealthy coping behaviours, combined with trauma resulting from authoritative and/or trusting relationships, as well as many other societal factor impacting one’s abilities to make rational and practical decisions, can all lead to devastating outcomes, which can ultimately lead to isolation, hopelessness and homelessness. This is where Herstreet comes in.

How to use this lesson

Global and Canadian Defenders for human rights have changed societal conditions and provided inspiration for students. The overall goal of Speak Truth to Power Canada is to raise student awareness that advances in human rights come through the actions of individuals.

In this lesson plan on Women’s Health and Security, you will find:

  • An interview with Léonie Couture including her biography.
  • Student activities that support the theme of this lesson, including activities related to Léonie Couture’s work, issue of homelessness in a Canadian context and the impact this has on individuals and society.
  • Three brief community defender profiles are provided to expand the lesson and encourage students to identify with a variety of defenders for human rights.

To support the lesson on Women’s Health and Security, you will also find:

  • Sections or articles of selected legal instruments that are tied to the themes of Women's Health and Personal Security.
  • A student activity that links the Moments in Time timeline of advancements and setbacks in human rights from a Canadian perspective.

You can, of course, choose any or all of the suggested student activities.

Learning Targets

During this lesson students will:

  • recognize that women’s homelessness may be the result of trauma suffered through trusting relationships;
  • recognize the difference in female and male homelessness and the different approaches needed to break the cycles;
  • recognize the need for a change from managing homelessness to eradicating homelessness.

Skills Development

After this lesson students will have improved the following skills:

  • Add meaningful argument to a group discussion
  • Research, organize and interpret information
  • Make inferences and draw conclusions
  • Recognize opposing points of view in a respectful fashion
  • Create a visual essay
  • Write a letter to the editor or an opinion article (Op-Ed)
  • Implement advocacy activities

Guiding Questions

  1. In what way do relationships determine women’s health and security?
  2. To what extent is homelessness a personal problem? A societal problem?
  3. Can homelessness be ended or only reduced? Explain.
  4. What needs to change to reduce/eradicate homelessness, particularly in women?


Opportunities and issues related to human rights are integrated throughout the curriculum. This lesson plan suggests student activities that will match curriculum expectations in Language, Social Sciences, Art, Health and Wellness, Citizenship, Law, and Technology.


Depending on the activities chosen it may be necessary to have access to a television, the Internet, computers, and/or films (on DVD or streamed) in addition to presentation materials to support individual student and group presentations.

Legal Instruments

Speak Truth to Power Canada highlights legal instruments in their simplified forms, which relate to the themes addressed in the 12 lesson plans. Selected articles and sections of these legal instruments are offered in this lesson plan to complement the discussion and the research.

United Nations Declaration on Human Rights

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples