Trigger Warning: Discussion and description of domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse. If you or someone you know is experiencing assault or violence of any kind, please reach out for help.
National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1 800 799 7233 or text “START” to 88788
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. Governments had to respond quickly to the COVID-19 crisis and stay-at-home orders became a popular temporary solution. Across Canada, and around the world, people were suddenly at home with no clear idea of how long this bizarre new reality would last. While social media was flooded with people making whipped coffee, banana bread, and taking family walks, people living in abusive households were not afforded the same lighthearted experiences. More than a year into the pandemic and reports of domestic violence remain at consistently high rates with no sign of slowing down.
Statistics from the Canadian Women’s Foundation show just how shocking the reality has been. Overall, half of all women in Canada experience at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes while “3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home”. What the Foundation’s report revealed too, however, was that these numbers intensify when considering other traits such as race and socioeconomic status. While on average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner, alarmingly “Indigenous women are killed at six times the rate of non-Indigenous women.” Though rightfully shocking, this is perhaps not so considering the national crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), something the federal government has yet to fully address. The RCMP has stated that between 1980 and 2012, there have been 1181 cases related to MMIW but grassroots organisations place that number closer to 4,000.
“Isolation is an abuser’s dream”
At the beginning of the pandemic, experts warned that stay-at-home orders, social isolation, and the expected stress caused by the realities of the pandemic would have a heavy impact on the intensity and quantity of domestic violence cases. Katreena Scott, the incoming director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western University, described this combination as a “kind of a perfect storm for domestic violence.” Calls to Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline more than doubled from April to September of 2020 compared to 2019, from 24,010 to 51,299.
From a sample of police forces across Canada, police calls have also increased since 2019 by almost 12% between March and June 2020. Although this number may seem small in comparison to the uptick reported by the assault helpline, Sgt. Julie Randall of the Ontario Provincial Police explained that “domestic violence goes on long before someone actually picks up the phone to call the police.” Essentially, the number of police calls is less than the actual number of domestic violence cases occurring. The Canadian government has recognised the dangers of rising domestic violence and allocated $100 million to shelters, organisations, and sexual assault centres across the country.
Schools and workplaces are often the only escape for women in abusive households, whether it be them going to these places or the means for the abuser to leave the home. However, with those facilities widely closed because of the pandemic, the path to reaching out for help has been severely limited with victims of abuse increasingly being stuck with their abusers almost, if not, all day. Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada (WSC), described how “isolation is an abuser’s dream.” Stay-at-home orders meant that women were stuck at home with their abusers, some of whom used the pandemic as an opportunity to further abuse and control women. “Shelters have been seeing more cases of survivors reporting controlling behaviour and coercive control with abusers even threatening to give women and their children COVID” Martin explained.
More common and more severe
Not only are calls to the police and hotlines becoming more common, but injuries are getting worse. WSC published a report on the increase in frequency and severity of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Front line workers were seeing an increase in physical attacks, including stabbing, strangling, and broken bones, in addition to all other forms of abuse, such as sexual violence, forced confinement, and emotional and financial abuse. The findings in a report by Ending Violence Association of Canada only further supported this tragic reality: 46% of GBV service providers, staff, and volunteers “noticed changes in the prevalence and severity of violence, with 82% of those workers describing [it as] an increase.”
Notably, 20% of GBV workers observed changes in power and control tactics since the beginning of the pandemic which has included using isolation as reasoning for more violence or regurgitating false information about the pandemic to further exercise control. Additionally, limiting usage of technology meant that those being abused were not able to freely read up on their own as well as making it much harder to reach out to someone for help.
As Canada ramps up its vaccine rollout and many look forward to ‘going back to normal,’ the transition to normalcy will not be an option for GBV survivors and service providers. One direct service provider stated that “framing [this transition]as a ‘return to normal’ is incredibly problematic because our normal before the pandemic was not serving women who experience violence well.” They continued this point by saying “we ought to look at this pandemic as a learning lesson in the bigger picture of gender-based violence[,] understand that we simply are not doing enough in reacting to the issue of violence against women, and more work needs to be done,” especially at the government-level.
‘Return to normal’ approaches to tackling the pandemic are not enough as they gloss over the existing social issues that this ‘new reality’ has exacerbated. As stated before, MMIW was a crisis before the pandemic was and if we don’t use this opportunity to address, tackle and dismantle the existing framework that allows these abuses to happen, we will have missed our chance and failed countless women.
Intersectional Approaches to the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence
The Ending Violence Association of Canada outlined four main steps to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence, which include “stable core funding that reflects the complexity and scope of services and demand,” “additional funding and resources to support efforts to prevent GBV in the first place,” and “opportunities for knowledge sharing” and centering experts in “post-pandemic recovery planning.” Perhaps, one of the most important points they highlighted was the necessity of intersectional approaches to ending GBV, specifically ones that address systemic social and economic factors embedded in the violence. These factors include “poverty, housing, … and lack of universal child care.” Additionally, any response that the federal government creates “must reflect the heightened risks for violence faced by women with disabilities; Black, Indigenous and racialized women; non-status, immigrant, refugee, and newcomer women; trans, non-binary, and gender diverse people; sex workers; and others marginalized by intersecting forms of inequality.”
The pandemic has highlighted inequalities and exacerbated existing social issues in an unprecedented manner. Both domestically and around the world, gender-based violence was a crisis long before COVID was, and it will continue unless something is done. Though it is a good step forward that women’s shelters are receiving more money, this is a short-term solution. Canada should aim to arrive at a point at which these services are no longer needed. The journey to confronting, and ultimately eliminating it, is going to require hard work and a deep understanding and dismantling of the systems that allow these instances to continue. The reality that all social justice issues are interconnected should no longer be debated and treated as differences of opinions but rather as facts.