Advocates scramble to help domestic abuse victims as calls skyrocket during COVID-19
TORONTO -- Advocacy groups are sounding the alarm on what is being described as an epidemic of domestic violence in Canada, as victims are confined to their homes with their abusers amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a pandemic on top of a pandemic,” Angela MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS), told CTV News.
The advocacy group, which provides educational and support services for victims of domestic violence across Canada, began scaling up their crisis support measures long before physical distancing measures were mandated in Canada, after MacDougall was warned by colleagues in China that a “tsunami” of abuse would become a side effect of the coronavirus pandemic.
With transition houses and women’s shelters already at capacity or closed due to virus concerns, BWSS began staffing their support line 24 hour a day, seven days a week.
“As soon as we went 24/7, our calls steadily increased progressively – 50 per cent to a hundred per cent until the peak at 300 per cent,” MacDougall said. “That ends up being a lot of calls for us, a little organization based in Vancouver, but we have the capacity and we scaled up really quickly with our trained staff in order to respond to the needs from all parties all across the country.”
Of the women who have called BSWW for support during the pandemic, an estimated 40 per cent are living in abusive situations, isolated with their abusers.
To make matters worse, many of these women have been stripped of their only respite from abuse, whether it be leaving the house to go to work, take the kids to school, or socialize.
Though more than half of the organizations callers are located in Metro Vancouver, the organization has been receiving calls from across the country. They have also received calls from women trapped in abusive situations overseas, some of which are Canadians seeking advice on how to return home.
ISOLATION A ‘RECIPE FOR DISASTER’
The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to spikes in domestic violence reports and crisis calls in China, France, and the U.K. -- a trend the Canadian Women’s Foundation says has been seen during past outbreaks.
The impact of the virus’ spread on women has already been documented by the Centre for Global Development and the UN, both of which cite economic insecurity, increased social isolation, and the inability for women to leave abusive situations as reasons for the uptick in violence.
Now, experts say the pandemic is shining a light on the prevalence of domestic violence in Canada, with shelters struggling to keep up with “frantic” calls from women in danger.
“We had to adapt in so many ways, and anything from reducing our capacity, unfortunately, in the shelter to improve social distancing” Stephanie Taylor, a spokesperson for the Regina Transition House, noting the shelter has been forced to anonymously arrange hotel rooms for some women when they are available.
One in 10 women say they are “very or extremely” concerned about the possibility of violence in their home due to the stress of confinement, according to a Statistics Canada survey about the impacts COVID-19 released in early April.
“Isolation is really the main tool an abuser uses. And right now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation is being handed to them on a silver platter,” Samra Zafar, domestic abuse survivor turned advocate, said in a recent YouTube video aimed at raising awareness about the risks facing victims during this time.
“A lot of these women don’t have access to the internet or other resources… couple that with all of the isolation that is already happening because that is mandated by law now, it becomes a recipe for disaster.”
Zafar, who wrote the bestselling memoir “A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose,” has started a series of free weekly webinars as a form of virtual support for women experiencing abuse.
The videos, uploaded to YouTube, offer emotional support, safety planning, and even legal advice.
Zafar, who advocates that “knowledge is power” for victims of abuse, notes that most women in abusive situations aren’t aware of their legal rights and have few resources available to find out what those rights are.
Her videos shed light on the fact that while regular court operations are suspended due to the pandemic, women who have access to legal counsel can still bring forward urgent motions for support.
“You will get access [to] and custody of children. You can get a family lawyer to put forward a case of domestic violence in front of a judge,” she told CTV News, noting that most women aren’t aware of their legal rights.
RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
The federal government has announced emergency funding for women’s shelters and other services for those who experience gender-based violence. However, the Canadian Women’s Foundation notes that more funding is urgently needed.
The foundation is now fundraising through the Tireless Together Fund, a national emergency fund to help vital services. It is also working with the federal government to distribute funding to vital services across the country.
The group’s “Signal for Help” campaign also aims to raise awareness about a one-handed sign victims can use on a video call to silently show they need help.
Zafar’s website also includes a domestic abuse resource database that provides a nationwide regional breakdown of the services and hotlines available to those grappling with violence in the home.
The website ShelterSafe contains information on emergency domestic abuse hotlines and resources for Canadians in every province and territory.
BWSS’s 24-hour crisis support can be reached at 604.687.1867 or toll-free at 1-855-687-1868.