The domestic violence situation in Canada has become even more critical as the pandemic and home isolation continues to have an unprecedented impact on vulnerable women.
Ten per cent of Canadian women reported that they were extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home during physical distancing in a recent survey released by Statistics Canada.
It’s not just Canada reporting a rise in numbers either – the United Nations reported a global surge, early April. The UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres urged governments to put women’s safety at the forefront of their COVID-19 response.
According to a study by the Centre for Global Development, a rise in gender-based violence is often seen in times of public emergency and crisis and has been in issue in other pandemic situations before COVID-19.
Vice president of public engagement at Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), Andrea Gunraj says there are a number of factors as to why abusive behaviour seems to flourish in pandemic conditions.
Job loss and reduced income, food insecurity, fears about contracting the virus, exacerbated mental health issues, as well as disrupted routines and services, all play a role.
Kaitlin Bardswich, communications and development manager at Women’s Shelters Canada (WSC), also says that since perpetrators of abuse thrive off control, COVID-19 offers a perfect situation to further that control.
“Abusers can now insist that their partners not leave the house, that they will be the ones to do any grocery shopping or other essential trips,” said Bardswich.
“Women are no longer leaving the house to work or to take their children to school, or to run errands, go to the dentist or doctor, or the hairdresser. These are all instances when a woman, in the past, would’ve been able to contact a shelter or a family member or friend for help.”
Bardswich says though some shelters across the country have seen an increase in calls, others have seen a significant decrease due to this. Whether services are being readily accessed or not, it still remains apparent that a need exists.
Bardswich says page views on their website, sheltersafe, which offers a clickable map that connects women to their closest women’s shelter and its crisis number, have more than doubled from February to March 2020, and for March 2020 compared to last year.
With the continued rise in demand, programs and services are struggling to meet women’s needs.
According to CWF, after surveying over 100 women’s service providers across Canada, 82 per cent revealed that they are concerned about their ability to continue providing services in the wake of the pandemic.
“Services were already stretched before the pandemic, so they are struggling with the surges of demand as well as the complicated expenses that come with serving people in a pandemic,” said Gunraj.
The Canadian government recognized this as an issue early on into the pandemic and announced a $82-billion COVID-19 aid package on March 18, which included $50 million funding for gender-based violence shelters and sexual assault centres.
$26 million of that is going to WSC to distribute to nearly 600 women’s shelters across the country and $4 million is going to the CWF to distribute to sexual assault centres.
Bardswich says that WSC ended up receiving $20.5 million, as $5.5 million was allocated to the Quebec government to distribute.
WSC began registering shelters last week and will be distributing an initial $15 million to shelters and transition houses across the country this week. Another round of funding and the distribution of the remaining $5.5 million will be based on need.
CWF also launched the Tireless Together Fund and has already raised $11,000 to help women reach vital services and support in the coming months.
“While there is government aid going to shelters and sexual assault centres, as well as other aid that charities can access, more will need to be done in coming months as the needs are high and the fundraising losses of the charitable programs we support have been significant,” said Gunraj.
Donations will help providers with staffing and volunteer shortages, support with childcare, food and transit, personal protective equipment, operational costs such as rent and utilities, and implementing physical distancing protocol.