Coronavirus Is Making Domestic Violence More Severe, Crisis Workers Say

There have been at least three suspected cases of gender-based violence in Canada since COVID-19 broke out, and crisis workers told VICE they expect the abuse to escalate.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, Canada
April 13, 2020, 10:00am
Locked fence
Crisis workers told VICE that women's shelters have been at capacity since the pandemic started, so women are having a harder time fleeing dangerous situations. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

This article includes graphic details that may be difficult for some readers.

Earlier this month, local police broke into a private home in Brockton, Ontario, a town two and a half hours northwest from Toronto, and found two bodies—a man and a woman—after receiving a tip from a concerned caller.

The discovery of the suspected murder-suicide, first reported by the Ottawa Citizen , followed a disgruntled Facebook post by a suspect who professed his love for the victim before apologizing for the accidental shooting. He referred to his “unborn child” in the post and accused his partner of cheating.

“I should have never been emotional with a gun,” the suspect said, before asking viewers to take care of the 13-month-old girl who police found unharmed at the scene.

In Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia, Police have charged a man with second-degree murder after they found a woman’s body in a private home two weeks ago. In Sundre, Alberta, RCMP are investigating a suspected murder-suicide after discovering the bodies of a 41-year-old woman and 35-year-old man late last month.

As the world grapples with the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, governments have repeatedly called for people to practice physical distancing by staying at home. The point of self-isolating, they say, is to prevent exposure to the virus.

But reports have found that this mandatory physical distancing has resulted in an onslaught of domestic abuse cases internationally. And evidence suggesting that COVID-19 has increased the severity of the violence—and resulted in fewer ways out of dangerous situations—is also starting to emerge.

Argentina has reported at least six femicides (murders of women because of their gender) since the pandemic started. In Turkey, at least 21 women have been killed since early March. And the United Nations has specifically called for concerted efforts to prevent gender-based violence in Central America as physical distancing measures continue.

Each of the crisis workers VICE spoke with said they are expecting the worrisome trend to escalate in Canada, with crisis lines working swiftly since the government first announced physical distancing measures in mid-March. One in 10 women are “very or extremely” concerned about the possibility of violence in the home, according to new data released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday.

According to Yvonne Harding, a resource development manager with Toronto’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline (AWH), COVID-19 conditions are “ripe” for abusers.

“It’s hard for good relationships to be in close quarters,” Harding said, adding that non-stop close proximity and COVID-19-related job loss exacerbates household stress that can lead to violence. Plus, abusers feel emboldened because they know their partners can’t access support as readily as they used to, she said.

In the pre-COVID-19 era, many crisis calls detailed aggressive threats of violence, but now, the same threats have turned into action, Harding said.

Women who need to escape to a nearby coffee shop or a friends house can’t do that either, Harding said.

That’s because emergency orders issued across the country have shuttered businesses deemed “non-essential,” including dine-in locales and libraries, and officials have repeatedly told people to avoid entering houses that aren’t their own.

“Partners are even telling others they have COVID-19 to keep people in the house,” Harding said.

An AWH counsellor who uses the alias “Suzanna” to protect her privacy told VICE her job has become “more complicated” because victims now call while in close physical proximity to their abusive partners.

“It is awful,” said Suzanna.

She said she has received urgent calls from women whispering while their husbands are in the backyard or asleep in the next room.

Under normal circumstances, Suzanna would tell clients who aren’t in immediate risk to call back from a safe environment. Now, she encourages them to take their children out for a walk or access a relatively private room, so they can chat as safely as possible, as soon as possible.

Suzanna said she feels like a 911 dispatcher now because she has to work very quickly. She works with victims to determine a course of action. If a woman says she’s ready to leave her home, Suzanna has to break the hard news: women’s shelters are at capacity. The AWH connects women to Toronto’s Central Intake, which will likely redirect victims to a homeless shelter, Suzanna said.

“It’s grim and messy and painful, you know, leaving your house with a suitcase and child, and staying in a homeless shelter,” Suzanna said. “But women are doing that over and over again.”

Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) started preparing for a spike in severe domestic violence before the pandemic reached Canada, the organization’s executive director, Angela MacDougall, told VICE.

MacDougall has connections in China who worked on the frontlines of COVID-19-related domestic assault as early as January, and she reached out in February to ask her Chinese counterparts for advice.

Following the tips, the BWSS extended their crisis line’s operating hours to 24/7 service, and only the most experienced counsellors are fielding calls now. MacDougall has also encouraged landlords, strata councils, and building managers to publicly post contact information for crisis lines and supports, so that victims have easy, widespread access to information.

As in Toronto and elsewhere, domestic violence in Vancouver is marred with horror stories unique to COVID-19.

The BWSS has received calls from women fearing for their health after their partners leave for extended periods of time, return home, and refuse to wash their hands. Others can’t access shampoo or soap because abusers are withholding products. Another caller told BWSS that her dad said that members of the family are “probably going to die tonight.”

“A lot of calls we’re getting are really despondent,” MacDougall said. “There’s a lot of depression and loneliness.”

BWSS said they’ve secured an entire floor at a hotel for women fleeing violence, as well as transition houses “here and there.”

The Canadian government has allocated up to $26 million in funding to provide about 575 women’s shelters and up to $4 million will be distributed to sexual assault centers across the country.

But most shelters are full, MacDougall said, calling the funding “completely inadequate.”

The only way to ensure safety for women is to make sure they have sustained access to information throughout the duration of the pandemic, she said, and to secure more safe housing.

“Governments around the world are imposing these lockdowns without making sufficient provisions for domestic violence victims,” MacDougall said.

“We have to do everything we can to prevent domestic violence, whether it’s straight up a man killing a woman or a man killing a woman and then himself.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in Canada, 24/7 support in your region is available here.

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