Women experiencing homelessness and women fleeing domestic violence will now have free access to cell phones to safely get the support they need during the Yukon’s COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown.
The government started distributing 325 cell phones to vulnerable women on Monday following the Yukon Status of Women Council’s (YSWC) request for donations on March 20. Health centres, shelters, and the YSWC will give out phones equipped with internet and four months of free services.
"As we moved into this COVID crisis, it became quite clear that women, or people who are living in a marginalized or precarious situation and can't afford the internet or tablets or cell phones, were going to be disproportionately impacted,” Aja Mason, director of the YSWC, told Global Citizen.
Levels of intimate partner violence spike when households are placed under increased stress and families are forced to live in confined spaces. Internet services are more expensive in the Yukon, and with public places like libraries and cafes that usually offer free Wi-Fi closed, women at risk will have limited options to seek help.
In 2018, 264 women reported domestic violence in the Yukon, more than three times the national rate in Canada. Many factors, including high drug and alcohol abuse, a sexual and domestic abuse culture in the mining industry, and the lasting impact of residential schools, play into the high rate of domestic violence in the territory, Mason said.
"We know that the services that would otherwise be available to help women fleeing domestic violence are going to be reduced," Mason said.
There are only three women shelters in the territory, which has a popualtion of more than 35,000 people, and they are already expecting staffing shortages.
"This program provides a way for women to access supports, connect with their loved ones, and apply for emergency funding programs," Jeanie Dendys, minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate, said in a press release. "I am so grateful for this partnership to make this program available to those in need."
Women can keep the devices after the complimentary period free of charge and have the option to stay on the plan for $40 a month.
"This was a really great example of how you know how collaboration can show up in different sectors," Mason said.
YSWC’s call for donations received a lot of attention on Facebook and through local media, and then the government quickly jumped on board, according to Mason. The government and telecom service provider Northwestel donated the majority of the devices and the council also received contributions from the general public.
"It makes a strong case for solidarity, working together, and recognizing that our mandates, organizations, or institutions often need to be put aside so that we can prioritize taking care of our people," Mason said.
YSWC will continue campaigning for cell phone donations. Women experiencing homelessness and women fleeing domestic violence will receive priority to claim a phone, but anyone living in a precarious situation is also eligible.