Lockdowns mean more violence for women and children

Text and chat lines at crisis shelters 'exploded' during first lockdown as victims lost connections to outside help.

Laura Hensley 5 minute read November 28, 2020
Pandemic and domestic abuse

Crisis calls spiked when measures were lifted in the summer. Experts worry about lockdowns impact on abuse. Getty

Lockdown measures make it harder for women experiencing violence to reach out for help, says a new report.

“The nature of abuse is one of power and control… so anytime that people’s outside contacts are shut off, it puts them at significant risk,” says Keri Lewis, executive director of Interval House of Ottawa. “While we all understand the need for lockdowns from a public health perspective, it is very concerning to those of us who work with victims and survivors of violence because we know the dynamics of abuse.”

According to the new report by Women’s Shelters Canada released Thursday, 266 national shelters and transitional houses (THs) saw a dip in crisis calls from March to May when many parts of the country were in lockdown.

The data suggests that people experiencing violence had difficulty leaving their homes or reaching out for help as abusive partners had better ability to monitor their moves. With schools closed, women with children at home faced compounding circumstances, says Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada.

“Overnight, people were found in enclosed quarters,” she says.

What’s more, for folks who live in households without internet, community centres and libraries were important places to access support services. When they closed, many people lost connection to outside help, Martin adds.

Concern around contracting COVID-19 was another barrier to help, the report also found, as many people took the government’s health measures seriously.

As soon as lockdown measures lifted in the summer months, shelters and THs saw a surge in both crisis calls and requests for admittance. Sixty-one per cent of shelters and THs said they experienced more crisis calls between June to October, and 54 per cent said requests for admittance increased during the same time.

At Lewis’ shelter in Ottawa, workers launched a chat line when the pandemic first hit so people could text them if they couldn’t call.

“During the initial few months of the lockdown, that text and chat line actually exploded,” Lewis says. “I think it really was because we were meeting that need for people to be able to reach out for support discreetly.”

How the pandemic has affected violence against women

Violence against women (VAW) is a serious problem in Canada. According to data from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a woman is killed by her partner approximately every six days in the country. Indigenous women are killed at a rate six times higher than non-Indigenous women.

Young women, women with disabilities, immigrant women and women who identify as lesbian or bisexual are more at-risk for gender-based violence, government data shows. When women of colour report violence, they are less likely to be taken seriously.

Workers launched a chat line when the pandemic first hit so people could text them if they couldn’t call

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only made it harder for folks to access help, it’s also worsened the violence women experience, the Women’s Shelters Canada report found. Lewis says factors like job loss, stress, substance abuse and mental health issues are all at play.

More than half of shelter and service workers said their clients were experiencing more severe forms of violence during the pandemic and reported disturbing trends in the violence they were seeing. These included an increase in physical attacks —specifically stabbing, strangulation and breaking bones — forced confinement, sexual violence, emotional and financial abuse and increased human trafficking, the report found.

More than half of shelter and service workers said their clients were experiencing more severe forms of violence during the pandemic

Months into the pandemic, shelters and THs are more equipped to respond to the current environment and have pivoted their services, Martin says. Many have implemented text lines and virtual services, and are engaging in outreach programs.

“There are other safety measures in place so that hopefully we won’t see such a marked decrease in calls with the second wave [of COVID-19],” Martin says.

Help for people experiencing violence

Crisis workers want people to know that shelters have remained — and will remain — open throughout the pandemic, and there are still support services available, both Martin and Lewis say.

If you’re someone who suspects a loved one is in a violent situation, Martin advises you to be sure to maintain contact with them as best as possible.

“If you had the opportunity to speak to them over the summer about how difficult things were at home, we’re really encouraging checking in with these friends and loved ones,” Martin says.

“Keep conversations simple, because you really have to be careful not to put the person whom you’re trying to help in a more difficult position. Ask very general questions about how they’re doing to break down the isolation.”

If you’re experiencing violence there are resources available, including Sheltersafe.ca, which allows people to look up nearby support services across Canada.

“The other message that we want to convey is that people don’t need to stay in a shelter to access shelter support services,” Martin says. “They also provide outreach, counselling, and safety planning.” In Ottawa, Lewis encourages women experiencing violence to text 613-704-5535 or visit Unsafeathomeottawa.ca. The Canadian Women’s Foundation also has a list of resources online. And as always, in case of emergency, call 9-1-1.

Laura Hensley is a writer with Healthing.ca.

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