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Stay Home, Stay Safe: An Oxymoron Worth Investigating

By Alana Couvrette, WISE Board Director

July 2020

Since the very start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the directive “stay home, stay safe” has guided the lives of Canadians from coast to coast. In a time of great uncertainty, these four words provided a sense of comfort and assurance: home is where you are the safest and staying home is how you can best protect yourself from harm. But what if home is where you are the least safe? What if staying home meant increasing your exposure to abuse and your likelihood of experiencing violence? The truth is that for many women around the world (including Canada), home is the most dangerous place to be. This was the case well before the pandemic began and lockdowns and curfews precipitated by COVID-19 only serve to exacerbate violence against women (VAW) by empowering perpetrators. 

After the pandemic's onset, Women and Gender Equality Canada consulted various frontline organizations, provinces, territories and Members of Parliament from across Canada to better understand the impact of the pandemic. Their efforts revealed a 20 to 30% increase in rates of gender-based violence, especially intimate partner violence, in certain regions of Canada. As of March 31, 2020, Vancouver-based organization Battered Women's Support Services noted a 300% increase in crisis calls compared to pre-lockdown call levels. In a similar vein, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, through a survey of more than 250 Indigenous women, found that one in five reported they have been a victim of physical or psychological violence over the past three months. Preliminary results of the survey and two additional consultation efforts also revealed that more of these women were concerned about intimate partner violence in the midst of the pandemic than they are about the virus. Similarly, Black-led shelter Imani’s Place – which focuses primarily on serving the Black, Indigenous and persons of color community – witnessed a 40% increase in calls since the pandemic began. Specific to LGBTQI2S people, although data relevant to the Canadian context is still emerging, extensive research has demonstrated that the incidence of intimate partner violence among lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) couples is the same or higher than that among heterosexual couples. It is reasonable to deduce that LGB people may be at an increased risk for domestic violence during the pandemic, with the potential effects on Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Two-Spirit people largely understudied.

While there is a wealth of information documenting the widespread and longstanding issue of VAW in Canada, there is limited evidence on how the drivers of violence change during a pandemic, how different forms of violence against women are heightened and how different types of women experience violence. Crises, unrest and disasters have long been linked to a multitude of risk factors for increased VAW (see Enarson 1999; Fraser 2020 or Palermo and Peterman 2011) however our understanding of the mechanisms linking these dynamics remains limited. Unlike other types of criminal activity and violence where data is more readily accessible, VAW is often underreported due to (among many reasons) fear, shame and stigma – a reality further compounded by structural, historical and systemic injustices known to racial and ethnic disparities. In addition, as of now, most data finds its base in police reports, media reports, anecdotal evidence and evidence from communities or organizations working with survivors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the gaps in our understanding of the current VAW and intimate partner violence crisis. While immediate measures are needed to support organizations working at the frontlines of the crisis, these informational gaps must not be forgotten in the process. Thought should be given to defining a research agenda that would help elucidate the pathways by which pandemics can exacerbate different forms of VAW - evidence essential to crafting responsive policy interventions. Governments, post-secondaries and research organizations must demonstrate intellectual humility and work more collaboratively with service providers like Women’s Initiatives for Safer Environments (WISE) who, by virtue of their work, have insights into which questions need to be asked and answered. Engaging with stakeholders at the onset of the research process can help build allyship and trust, potentially mitigating some of the ethical and methodological challenges in obtaining data.

There is concern that our standard policy ‘toolbox’ will be insufficient in addressing the additional and unprecedented challenges faced by women experiencing violence in a pandemic setting. Indeed, overwhelmed crisis lines, strained health-care services and at-capacity women’s shelters seem to evidence this conclusion. While the transfer of federal emergency relief funds to organizations providing services to women experiencing violence is critical, it is nevertheless a Band-Aid solution. A more nuanced understanding of the different forms of VAW in a pandemic and how different types of women experience it would ensure that programs and services are altogether more responsive and meet a more diverse set of needs. Likewise, clarity on the pathways or drivers of VAW during a pandemic could help inform prevention strategies in mitigating stressors and triggers. 

Ultimately, it is only once we begin to make what has been dubbed an ‘invisible pandemic’ more visible that we can we begin the real work: acting on the evidence.