The phones went quiet: How COVID cut off escape routes for women in abusive relationships

As the country prepares to mark a day of remembrance on violence against women, activists say the pandemic has made a bad problem worse.

Bruce Deachman 5 minute read December 4, 2021

Almost immediately after the first COVID-19 lockdown went into effect in March 2020, the phones at women’s emergency shelters in Ottawa suddenly went quiet.

“We called it the eerie silence, because women weren’t able to call,” says Ray Eskritt, executive director of Harmony House, Ottawa’s only transitional shelter, which bridges the gap between emergency shelters and independent housing. “Their abuser was always at home with them during lockdown. You couldn’t even go turn on the shower and talk to someone on the phone because he’d be listening.”

The isolation caused by lockdowns is only one way the pandemic increased the threat of harm to those in abusive relationships.

Many shelters had to reduce their capacity, making escaping violence more difficult. Access to social services also decreased. Women were disproportionately impacted by COVID job losses, adding to the potential for conflict, which also closing avenues for flight. In addition, women have typically carried more of the burden of child care during the pandemic, especially when schools were closed, adding another layer of stress and limiting earning power in many cases.

“Violence against women tends to increase during every type of emergency, including epidemics,” the World Health Organization stated.

One key element affected by lockdowns is community, Eskritt says.

“When you’re traumatized, the main thing you need is community. You need people. And when this community was taken, like at the height of the lockdowns, women were trapped with their abusers, and we were making stay-in-place plans instead of run-away plans. But how can we keep you safe while you’re living with this and there’s nowhere to go?”

Organizations quickly developed fixes to the situation, offering online services where few or none existed before, for example. An online chat and text service, UnsafeAtHome ( or 613-704-5535), was created, allowing women an easier and safer way to reach out for help.

“It just shot through the roof once word got out,” says Eskritt.

Keri Lewis, executive director of Interval House emergency shelter, one of the organizations sponsoring the service, describes the line as, literally, a “lifesaver.”

“Things were worse (in lockdowns). Abuse thrives behind closed doors,” she says.

“If a person is in an abusive situation in normal times, there are points of access — going out to work or dropping kids off at school or daycare, or maybe it’s a partner who goes to work every day — but during a lockdown, all of those opportunities for an intervention disappear,” Lewis says.

Interval House, which provides emergency shelter, was also able to increase its capacity by opening a second location last December, increasing its number of beds from 30 to 38.

But the demand for these service far outstrips availability: “It’s almost back to where it was (before the pandemic), which is terrible,” Eskritt says.

Ottawa police say there hasn’t been a noticeable change in the number of reported cases of domestic assault. “But we know that isn’t reflective of what’s actually going on in the community,” says Staff Sgt. Nicole St. John, with OPS’s Human Trafficking and Partner Assault units. “And I think we always have that in mind. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of people aren’t coming to us, and for a variety of reasons.”

Anecdotally, though, St. John says that many of the reported cases of partner assault in the past four months or so have been more severe than they’d typically seen before.

“And when the lockdowns decreased a bit last fall, the investigators described a ‘tsunami’ of calls coming in.”

People gather at the Women’s Monument at Minto Park on the 30th anniversary of the massacre at l’Ecole Polytechnique. Jean Levac / Postmedia News

Thirty-two years after the massacre at École Polytechnique in Montréal, and 30 years after Dec. 6 was declared National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, the problem remains.

According to Statistics Canada, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every six days. The Canadian Women’s Foundation notes that more than 6,000 women and children sleep in shelters on any given night because it’s not safe at home.

Rates of violence by intimate partners are highest in lower-income households, among younger women, and among Indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities, and women living with disabilities.

The issue is so significant that the Native Women’s Association of Canada is holding a 16-day #AnswerTheCalls campaign to shed light on it. Each day until Dec.10, it’s highlighting one of the 231 calls for justice recommended by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

CEO Lynne Groulx suggests that COVID is a pandemic that fell on top of another, already existing pandemic — that of violence against women.

“Unfortunately, there’s not a quick fix,” she says. “The levels of violence are so high that clearly something is not working somewhere.

“But there’s a lot that people, not just government, can easily do, like raising awareness by speaking out on social media and denouncing violence against women. People have that voice and they can do that.”

The problem won’t go away, Groulx, Eskritt and Lewis agree, until it is viewed through a lens that includes such issues as income, housing and mental health.

The lack of affordable housing , says Lewis, contributes to Interval House turning away hundreds of people each year.

“One of the main reasons there are no shelter spaces for folks fleeing violence is that there’s no housing. What happens is that people come to us in crisis, and stay with us for way longer than they need to to resolve that crisis, because there’s simply nowhere for them to go.”

In past years, she says people at Interval House might stay for about eight weeks before finding market-rent or subsidized housing.

“But we have a family that will have been with us for a year this January, simply because there’s nowhere for her to go. People are staying longer and longer, and it creates a bottleneck in shelters.”

By the city’s own admission, there are about 10,000 families on waiting lists for the roughly 22,500 social housing units in Ottawa, with wait times of “up to five years or more.” Eskritt and Lewis suggest that the waiting period is closer to 10 years, although applicants are triaged, with those with urgent safety concerns given higher priority.

“This is a societal problem,” says Eskritt, “which means it needs bigger solutions. The way to solve it is to make sure that people can meet their basic needs without relying on an abuser. Maybe if women had enough to eat and pay rent, they wouldn’t have to stay in these situations.”


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