The double pandemic: COVID-19 and gender-based violence

The latest survey on the Canadian shelter system for women experiencing violence during the pandemic highlights some disturbing trends. Faiza Amin with the survey's findings and crucial information you need to know.

By Faiza Amin

TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions of assault, violence, abuse, sexual abuse, human trafficking

Canada’s shelters are seeing a disturbing escalation of violence against women during the pandemic with a dramatic increase in crisis calls, according to the latest Shelter Voices survey produced by Women’s Shelter Canada.

The national report takes a snapshot of the work shelters and transitional homes are doing in their response to women experiencing violence. This year’s focus is how victims and front line workers have been impacted by the pandemic and how they’re adapting.

“Data is really important, it provides evidence,” said Lise Martin, Executive Director of Women’s Shelter Canada. “Hopefully this will be used in future policy making and advocacy.”

The survey found that front line workers were seeing a higher frequency of abuse in all forms, including physical attacks, specifically stabbings, strangulations and broken bones, as well as forced confinement, sexual violence, and human trafficking.

There were a number of trends identified between the first phase of the pandemic and the second, when restrictions were lifted between June and October.

In the first phase of the pandemic, three in five shelters reported that calls had decreased, while in the second they reported seeing an increase of 61 per cent.

The survey showed there was a similar pattern for clients accessing the shelter system, from 65 per cent of respondents seeing a decrease in admittance to more than half seeing an increase as restrictions were lifted.

“The capacity issues are really extenuated in the urban areas, so I do think that shelters in most major cities in Canada remain at capacity, unfortunately,” Martin said.

With the province in a second lockdown, concern grows over how this will impact front line workers providing services to women and families in need.

The report shows the difficulties women faced in accessing services and leaving their homes as regions faced tighter restrictions over several months. There were a number of barriers that prevented some women from accessing services, including being monitored by their abuser and therefore unable to call or leave their environment, compounded by fears of contracting the virus.

“In the first phase, many of us really didn’t know what was happening and [we were] doing our best to figure out and continue to provide services,” Martin said.

“We know a number of abusers used COVID as an excuse, saying if you leave you’re going to put yourself and the kids in danger.”

“If home wasn’t safe, it was important for us to get out the message that you didn’t need to stay home and there was an alternative because most of our shelters remained open during the pandemic,” she said.

With public health guidelines limiting crowds, 71 per cent of shelters and transitional homes have also had to reduce capacity in order to comply with regulations. A majority of respondents — 74 per cent — did however establish isolation units and a little over half of them were located on-site.

Martin said none of the over 600 shelters and transitional homes were closed as a result of the pandemic, with only two experiencing outbreaks. But all have been closely following public health guidelines.

The Shadow Pandemic

Of the 65 homicide victims in Toronto this year, 10 have been women and in at least six cases a male, including two minors, were charged and arrested for their deaths. These investigations remain ongoing and the relationships between all the victims and suspects is unknown.

Some of those names are on the annual femicide list, produced each year by the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH).

Between November 26, 2019 and November 25, 2020, the organization has recorded 35 femicides in the province — women and girls who were victims of gender-based violence.

OAITH has been tracking femicides since 1995, detailing family and intimate partner homicides reported by media and police.

“We do this work to bring attention to the type of heinous violence that women experience at the hands of men,” said Marlene Ham, Executive Director at OAITH. “We hope that we don’t have to report on another femicide today and update that list, but the day isn’t done and so we are continuing to keep track of any updates.”

In last year’s OAITH report, there were 37 femicides reported. Ham says there were more media-reported intimate partner femicides then, but this year there are more unknown femicides, which the organization is continuing to monitor.

“Those might actually be intimate partner femicides, but information has not been released to the media,” Ham said. “This number is always partial because we know not every woman gets a media report, so there may be women who have been killed that haven’t been captured on this list because this list is reliant on media reports that we track throughout the year.”

So far this year, Toronto Police have had 4,182 domestic-related occurrences in the city. That’s fewer than in 2019, but an increase from 2018.

These numbers are just a small snapshot of the reality of how many women experience gender-based violence, according to experts who say most women don’t report to police.

In recent years, organizations like OAITH have been seeing a demographic shift in victims of gender-based violence. Ham notes that they are seeing an increase in victims 50 years of age and older.

This year, the oldest woman on OAITH’s femicide list is a 95-year-old woman from Toronto. The youngest victim on the list is four.

“Ontario does have the oldest aging population, so it does make sense that we’re finding more and more women who are on OAITH’s femicide list that are of an aging population,” Ham said. “Older women who are on the list, they are being killed by their intimate partner. This is an issue we’re continuing to bring attention to.”

The United Nations calls violence against women, ‘the shadow pandemic’, one that exists in the backdrop of the COVID-19 public health crisis. The global organization notes that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner.

The UN has long called this a human rights violation, saying all types of violence against women and girls, especially domestic violence, has intensified since the start of the pandemic.

As experts call on more supports and services for victims of gender-based violence, Ham is also bringing attention it’s also vital to address the root cause of this issue.

“We need men to be able to reach out for the help that they need, because the worst possible consequence to enacting violence on women in their life is when that violence becomes lethal,” Ham said. “We want them to reach out sooner and to access their support systems so that these tragedies don’t continue to happen.”

If you or anyone you know needs help, you can contact the following helplines:

Assaulted Women’s Helpline Crisis Line:

  • TOLL-FREE: 1-866-863-0511
  • TOLL FREE TTY: 1-8666-863-7868
  • #SAFE (#7233) on your Bell, Rogers, Fido or Telus Mobile

Senior Safety Line

TOLL-FREE:  1-866-299-1011

Shelter Safe

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