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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

“Relational health is the vital ability to connect with oneself and others. From the perspective of human rights, the right to relational health makes other basic rights accessible: life, security, integrity, and freedom.” 1

“Everyone suffers from violence,” Léonie says. She herself suffered from it even though the act of violence was not directly perpetrated on her, it deeply affected her.

She found some justice in standing up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves.

“I did things because of someone else’s needs. … It was at once an act of protection and a course against injustice.”

When she left home in her twenties to move to Ottawa to work and study, the world of gender inequality was still alive and well. Also through her brother’s death, who had suffered much harassment and intimidation, she felt a profound need to continue to support those who could no longer support themselves.

Surrounded by the rise of the feminist movement at the University of Ottawa, she was disturbed by the way the philosophers in textbooks talked about women, often relating to them as second-class citizens. She found it even more unsettling to see these views being manifested by too many men she would encounter in her daily life.

“I wanted to take action. I wanted to do something that made sense.”

By 1981, she was working for the Mouvement contre le viol et l’inceste (Movement Against Rape and Incest”) in Montréal, where she met her late friend and therapist, Shulamit Lechtman.

Through Shulamit’s guidance, Léonie found that unhealthy, abusive relationships, like those so many women have experienced, were at the centre of the struggles women faced.

“To be able to walk, you need the support of your legs. If you break one leg, walking will become very painful if you try to walk on this broken leg. … With broken legs, our lack of support will make it impossible for us to walk. A parallel can be made concerning relationships. One needs to recognize the impact of these wounds and the need to repair them.”

Léonie espouses that the lack of belief in ourselves and others doesn’t allow us to engage in healthy relationships. If you are a broken person from the inside out and have lost trust in yourself and others, you cannot have healthy relationships. You need to heal yourself in order to regain your power to relate harmoniously. This is “relational health”.

Looking at the issue of violence and sexual abuse towards women that decimates them to nothingness, requires a rebuilding of relationships, including with oneself thus validating one’s sense of worth. “If you believe you are nothing, you will give up everything and everyone, including yourself.”

It is not that women don’t know how to have relationships. “They’ve been so hurt and damaged by them that their belief system in themselves and others is non-existent.”

Léonie wanted to formalize that understanding.

In 1994, she founded Herstreet – known more commonly by its French name La Rue des Femmes, a center for women in a state of homelessness. It started with a table, chairs, and a support group.

It’s grown into a relational health center, an inclusive community for those women in Montréal, providing a roof, meals, counselling, rehabilitation activities and security. Whether the women fear starvation, violence, or judgment, Herstreet is a safe space. Its main focus is offering care and tools so women can heal and regain power on their lives.

Léonie has a smile and time for everyone at Herstreet, whether they’re working in her team, or in the warmly lit cafeteria having their meals and lingering to talk. The women who see the center as respite from a harsh reality, approach Léonie with confident familiarity as she walks the halls, and she listens. They are a family.

Léonie feels she’s grown a lot in her ongoing journey, which now has lasted over 30 years.

Léonie believes every woman she encounters at Herstreet needs healing trough compassion and love. Helping each woman understand her own motives and pain, Léonie says, is vital to re-discovering oneself, and, ultimately, recovering and owning one’s life.

“We have experiences in our lives that nourish us and, in the end, make us ready to do what we need to accomplish in our lives. I never married but I created another family. I’m blessed.”

For Léonie, what keeps her going is her belief that “relational health” is the key to sustainable health and power for women.

“I don’t know why things happen to us in our lives. We don’t know the grand plan. There’s a reason. We are all here to contribute.”

“Violence against women includes all forms of violence. Humanity as a whole suffers from it.”

“We are here for a reason. Sometimes I tell women: ‘I don’t know why your life is so difficult, but we all contribute to improve this world.”

1 The first and the last two quotes of this text were provided by Léonie Couture in French. The English version is a translation.