Nearly a year into the pandemic, reports of domestic assaults have nearly doubled and become more severe across the country, with abusers “leveraging” COVID-19 and finding new ways to control their partners.
From the start of the pandemic in March to December, Assaulted Women’s Helpline (AWHL) fielded more than 71,000 calls, compared to its average of 40,000 per year. In British Columbia, Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) recorded a total of 32,000 calls, in-person visits, virtual counselling, and legal advocacy appointments—about double from the year before.
“If there had been emotional abuse present before the pandemic, then that crossed the line into physical abuse. With physical abuse, it crossed the line into threats,” said Yvonne Harding, an AWHL resource development manager.
Conditions created by COVID-19—lockdowns, isolation, job losses—have been “ripe” for abuse, VICE World News previously reported, with abusers feeling emboldened because their partners haven’t been able to access support as readily as they could before the pandemic.
In some areas, technology-facilitated violence, or abuse, control, and surveillance that uses cell phones, iPads, the internet, and other devices, has become more frequent and intense.
Abusers can connect their partner’s iMessage accounts to their own devices and monitor text messages, for example, or demand their partners send photos of their whereabouts when they’re not at home.
“That’s posed lots of very difficult challenges for us to overcome as far as staying in touch with women,” said BWSS executive director Angela Marie MacDougall. “We’re seeing that abusive partners are definitely leveraging the pandemic to increase power over women.”
BWSS also trained more volunteers on crisis lines and expanded its hours of operation to reach as many women as possible.
“The standard 9 to 5 is not effective...our biggest demand is between 5 p.m. and midnight,” MacDougall said.
Prior to the pandemic, AWHL would get about 4,000 calls per month, Harding said. When they first surged last year, that figure doubled, and since the summer, the organization consistently receives an average of 7,000 calls a month.
About one-third of victims and survivors are calling from outside of Ontario, compared to 4 to 6 percent before COVID-19. That’s likely because Canada doesn’t have a national crisis hotline, and few provinces have a dedicated one available around the clock, Harding said.
“There isn't equal access across all regions of this country for women in abusive situations,” she said.
Like BWSS, AWHL has had to adjust its services to meet new needs—like asking for and giving information in a short amount of time. In the past, phone calls averaged about 36 minutes, but now, a lot of women who are stuck isolating with abusive partners “don’t have the luxury of a 30-minute phone call,” Harding said.
“We’ve had calls from women calling from a closet, the bathroom. Women who are calling because they've taken the baby out for a walk and are calling while they have a 10- to 15-minute window,” Harding said.
Moving forward, MacDougall said sustained and adequate funding is critical. “We need to fund service—and fund services well,” including for housing and other long term-needs. “Sometimes, women also need resources to move geographically.”
Last April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised $40 million to support women’s shelters, which followed an earlier pledge of $100 million for shelters servicing homelessness as well as women and children fleeing violence.
Despite the commitments, shelters across Canada are still struggling to access adequate funding and there are too-few second-stage shelters for women, particularly in remote areas, the Canadian Press reported. The result is shelters often have to fundraise themselves to cover their costs, including employee salaries.
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If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in Canada, 24/7 support in your region is available here.