Canada’s minister for women and gender equality says that the COVID-19 crisis has empowered perpetrators of domestic violence as consultations reveal that abuse rates are rising in parts of the country.
“What the pandemic has done with the self-isolation measures, with the closures of some of the support systems, is create a powder keg,” Maryam Monsef said in an interview with CBC News.
Climbing rates of domestic violence have been reported around the world amid orders to stay indoors and limit social interaction to curb the spread of COVID-19. Closures of some shelters and reduced capacity at others is worsening the problem, with the United Nations calling for immediate global action to halt the surge.
After the pandemic’s onset, Monsef said her department consulted with frontline organizations, provinces and territories and MPs from across Canada to better understand the impact of the crisis.
The discussions uncovered a 20 to 30 per cent increase in rates of gender-based violence and domestic violence in some regions of the country, though data on where the uptick is occurring is not yet available.
“In some places the calls for help have gone up by some 400 per cent,” Monsef said, referencing the circumstances facing one shelter in the Greater Toronto Area.
Last week, York Regional Police, which serves a population north of Toronto, reported a 22 per cent increase in domestic incidents since stay-at-home measures came into effect March 17.
Fewer calls doesn’t mean fewer incidents
But a shelter, sexual assault centre or crisis line reporting a drop in calls or fewer requests for help doesn’t mean domestic violence isn’t happening, Monsef said.
“In some pockets, and many of the more rural communities … some frontline organizations are reporting it’s eerily quiet,” said Monsef, who is also responsible for rural economic development.
“That’s because likely she’s under surveillance. She can’t call for help. She doesn’t know to call for help. And that’s another challenge we are seized with right now.”
So far, the federal government has pledged $50 million to assist women’s shelters, sexual assault centres and similar facilities in Indigenous communities throughout the crisis.
The funds are intended to help the facilities implement public health recommendations to protect against an outbreak, reducing the need for services to shut down.
But not everyone is aware that shelters — which have been deemed an essential service — are still an available option, said Wanda McGinnis, CEO of the Wheatland Crisis Society in rural Alberta.
“I’m really scared because I think what we’re seeing is a scary silence,” McGinnis said. “Our numbers are down with women in [the] shelter and that’s partly because we have reduced our capacity.
“I think it’s also due to people just not knowing what extra measures we put in place to support families… being able to socially distance and to self isolate.”
Those measures include limiting families to using their own bathrooms, reducing the number of people in communal areas and sanitizing spaces appropriately.
McGinnis said her centre received 333 crisis calls in January, a number that dropped to 203 in March when isolation measures ramped up.
“A pandemic doesn’t make [violence] stop,” she said. “A pandemic just makes that silent.”
Pandemic an ‘enormous pressure cooker’
Calls that do come through indicate that domestic violence is still a serious concern.
“The calls that we have received have indicated that [women] are in very dangerous situations. We’re having reports of women being strangled and threatened with weapons,” McGinnis said.
Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, says COVID-19 is just worsening an existing problem.
“It’s really created an enormous pressure cooker. And so for a number of women the situation has been exacerbated,” Martin said.
It’s now harder than ever for women to interact with friends or even take a trip to the grocery store, she said.
“I think the federal government needs to be sending the message loud and clear that if your home is not safe, you do not need to stay in that home.”
That’s a topic British Columbia’s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry tackled during a news conference Saturday, after discussing how domestic violence can increase during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Your immediate safety is more important than physical distancing or self isolation,” Henry said.
Monsef: Second stage of response in the works
Monsef said her department has taken the feedback received from the consultations and is now working on a new plan of action.
“These ideas range from immediate support to families and to victims, to a helpline for men so that they have a place to call when they are feeling stress and anxiety,” she said. “In addition to that we are working to build coalitions of leaders and organizations on the ground across the country to help keep our kids safe.”
The minister said she has spoken with “hundreds” of frontline organizations to identify their service gaps and solicit proposals for what they need.
Those needs are something Martin says will only increase as the pandemic — and Canada’s response to it — evolves.
“There is a consensus that there will be a huge surge in the demand for services once the isolation measures start to be reduced,” Martin said. “That is where I think we will require further resources down the road, and I think shelters are already starting to prepare for that.”