A woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner every six days, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. But that risk can feel much higher during times of crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, when women’s shelters are strained and social services are stretched thin by an influx of demand.
For some women, threats of danger exist on either side of their front door: they must choose to either live with an abuser inside or else face the risk of contracting COVID-19 should they choose to flee.
The Canadian government pledged $30 million to address the immediate needs of shelters and sexual assault centres in order to support women fleeing gender-based violence during the pandemic. Women’s Shelters Canada is managing that fund, supporting roughly 575 shelters nationwide.
That support has begun to flow to shelters, each empowered to flexibly calibrate the funding to meet their unique needs — whether that be through increased staffing, additional child care, enhanced technology to communicate with vulnerable clients, or additional cleaning supplies to ward off risk of internal spread.
"We know that shelters were already struggling with high demand and a lack of funding before the pandemic. Since COVID-19, the demand for shelter services has increased here in Canada, as it has around the world," Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, said in a statement.
Kaitlin Geiger-Bardswich, communications and development manager at Women’s Shelters Canada, says that across the country, shelters have reported both stark increases and decreases in outreach and visits — and that both trends are equally troubling.
"We’ve seen indications across the country that calls to domestic violence, generally, are up," Geiger-Bardswich told Global Citizen. “But there are pockets in Canada where there has been no difference or a market decrease in calls. Shelters are very concerned about that, as complications arise due to isolating or quarantining with [an] abusive partner, and victims are not able to privately access a phone or computer to contact a crisis centre."
As social distancing measures persist, Geiger-Bardswich says triggers for violence against women and children will only get worse.
"What the abuser seeks is control. Now that they have to stay inside, he can limit their contact to family and friends," she said.
Geiger-Bardswich fears that their vulnerabilities will mount as the stressors of unemployment rise in Canada and place further strain on homes.
Geiger-Bardswich says that where demand has increased, shelters are adapting to accommodate the influx.
As they reach capacity, Canadian shelters are preparing to lean on local hotels and university dorms for overflow. And, nationwide, shelters have been directed to introduce screening plans and enhanced preventative sanitary measures.
Provinces have also announced additional localized measures to combat the troubling trends amid COVID-19.
Ontario announced an emergency fund of $2.7 million to support domestic violence victims during the pandemic that will reach more than 50 community agencies across Ontario, including Indigenous organizations and groups based in rural areas. Meanwhile, in British Columbia, Mitzi Dean, the parliamentary secretary for gender equality, pledged the province’s support for women and children experiencing and fleeing violence during the pandemic.
Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for #COVID19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) April 6, 2020
Today I appeal for peace in homes around the world.
I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic. pic.twitter.com/PjDUTrMb9v
"If you reach out for help, we will make sure there is a safe space during this emergency — no matter where you live in BC," Dean said in a statement.
This problem is not unique to Canada. Domestic abuse charities across Europe have called on hotels to be repurposed as spaces of refuge amid a massive spike in numbers of women fleeing violence during COVID-19 lockdowns. The issue is of such international concern that António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, urged governments to put women’s safety at the forefront of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Many women under lockdown for COVID-19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own homes," he said.