In the wake of a global pandemic, domestic violence against women is getting the public and media attention that it deserves and that women’s rights advocates had always hoped it would receive. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for rapid responses to the “horrific surge” in the incidence of domestic violence: in most cases, women experiencing abuse in their homes from male intimate partners.  Guterres urged governments to allocate more resources to support those now trapped in such situations.

Across the world, as more countries went into lockdown to prevent COVID-19 community spread, service providers began reporting an increase in crisis calls involving domestic violence incidents. In some parts of Canada, front-line service providers noticed a 20 to 30 percent increase in domestic violence reporting. Vancouver-based Battered Women’s Support Services faced a rapid increase in crisis calls: up by 300 percent compared with the number of calls before the lockdown. In a Statistics Canada survey conducted in April, 1 in 10 women reported being extremely concerned about the possibility of facing violence in the home.

Lockdowns are revealing how isolation at home is harmful for those in coercive, violent relationships: it allows perpetrators to control women’s movements, restrict access to support services and separate them from the safety networks of family and friends. Stay-at-home rules have also highlighted the vital importance of crisis services, shelters and transition homes for those fleeing domestic violence. Intimate relationships are strained when there is loss of income, uncertainty about the future and the general anxiety that comes with facing stressful life events and situations.

In Canada, women are more likely to be abused and killed by their intimate male partners within their own homes than they are to be killed by strangers outside home.

The links between social isolation, entrapment and domestic violence were apparent long before the pandemic. In Canada, women are more likely to be abused and killed by their intimate male partners within their own homes than they are to be killed by strangers outside home. Those who face social isolation without access to support networks — including Indigenous women, racialized women, newcomer women, trans women and women living with disabilities — have always been more vulnerable to violence. Indigenous women’s risk of experiencing violence is three times higher than that of non-Indigenous women, and according to a nationwide survey led by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, there has been an increase in intimate partner violence within their communities since early February. Sakeenah Homes, a Toronto-based crisis line serving immigrant women facing domestic violence, has received three times as many calls in a day as it would have previously received over a week.

Many immigrant and refugee women who are legally and financially tied to abusive partners have always been socially isolated and at risk of domestic violence, but they are unable to report or leave abusive relationships. Migrant women without legal status (non-status) have always faced barriers to reporting abuse and asking for help because of fears about jeopardizing their stay in Canada. Long before the lockdown, migrant workers were separated from their support networks of family and friends back home and, because of their temporary status, excluded from services and supports accessible to citizens and permanent residents.

Additional funding is needed to expand the capacity, staff and resources to provide crisis intervention services and violence prevention programs beyond this pandemic.

The lockdown has also revealed gaps in community capacities to support survivors of domestic violence across Canada. Crisis intervention services have become rapidly overwhelmed during the pandemic. The resources available to women’s shelters and transition homes were already under strain before the increase in demand for services. The federal government pledged up to $50 million to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres to deal with the added burden; service providers welcome the emergency funding but remain concerned about their ability to support survivors in the long term. Additional funding is needed to expand the capacity, staff and resources to provide crisis intervention services and violence prevention programs beyond this pandemic.

In Canada, it is already evident that this pandemic will worsen existing gender and social inequalities for women. In March, more women than men were laid off or had their hours of work cut. They are more likely to be newcomer women, temporary workers and non-status women in part-time, precarious jobs without paid leave and employment benefits. Without long-term income support, guaranteed, stable work and options to reduce caregiving burdens at home, they will find surviving abusive relationships after the lockdown to be just as difficult as it was before, or more so. In fact, the fallout of the pandemic will make some of them more vulnerable to abuse, if they are in communities struggling to cope with persisting economic and social disadvantages; these will be made worse by the loss of jobs, the collapse of informal economies and the added strain on people’s health and relationships.

It may be easy to understand how isolation at home can be harmful for women and children in the context of these lockdowns. But it is harder to see that some women were living in lockdown already; for them, domestic violence is not a recent pandemic, and it will not dissipate when things go “back to normal” for others. Communities will need a range of supports, resources and investments in the public and non-for-profit sectors in addition to domestic violence crisis interventions to help overcome new and pre-existing risk factors. Short-term measures will serve only as band-aids; without long-term investment in concrete efforts and solutions to prevent domestic violence, it will persist beyond the lockdown. And, as recently witnessed in the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, its worst forms can be deadly.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

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Vathsala Illesinghe is a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar and PhD candidate in immigration and settlement policy studies at Ryerson University. She is a member of the Expert Advisory Panel of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA).  

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