The changing tide of domestic violence during a pandemic  

di Priscilla Pajdo del February 17, 2021

TORONTO - Social isolation, loss of employment and reduced income are just some factors known to increase the risk of domestic violence. Covid-19 and the associated measures implemented to reduce the spread of the virus have exacerbated these conditions leading to a serious and frightening situation for those impacted by violence.

For instance, Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline (ASH) reported an increase of about 8,000 calls in the last quarter of 2020. According to Yvonne Harding, manager of resource development at the organization, between September 1 and December 31, 2020, the Helpline staff answered a total of 20,334 calls. That represents a 65% increase over the 12,352 during the same period in the previous year.

This increase in call volume is not a new phenomenon. During the first wave of the pandemic, calls to the helpline more than doubled. Harding told The Canadian Press that the centre received 51,299 calls between April 1 and September 30 compared to 24,010 during the same time period in 2019.

Large-scale lockdown and stay-at-home measures have created barriers for many who seek help. Social distancing protocols have made it more difficult for individuals to access essential support networks like family, friends and victim services.

Earlier in the pandemic, frontline agencies like ASH received government funding to help them adapt to remote service delivery to ensure continued service for those in need. The funds would help agencies develop text and online chat platforms, set up toll-free lines, provide interpreter services and hire more staff to manage the increase in call volumes.

Not only have these agencies experienced an increase in crisis calls, but there are also changes in requests for admittance into Violence Against Women shelters and Transition Houses (THs), specifically those that serve women and children affected by violence.

According to a national survey, Shelter Voices 2020 by Women’s Shelters Canada, results show how requests for supports varied between different stages of the pandemic.

During Phase 1 (March-May 2020), data suggests women were more reluctant to reach out for help in seeking admittance to a shelter or TH.

Sixty-five percent of respondents indicated that requests for admittance decreased. Only 15% of those surveyed indicated an increase in those seeking shelter space.

A variety of reasons were attributed to these results. For one, a fear of contracting the virus in the shelter setting. Another contributing factor was the fear over housing insecurity and potential homelessness in an ongoing pandemic. These were just some of the concerns noted in the report that were a deterrent for women wanting to leave an abusive home.

However, once restrictions began to ease across the nation during Phase 2 (June-October), the rates all but reversed. Fifty-four percent of respondents said requests for admittance increased, whereas, 19% reported a decrease.

The situation remains challenging as a majority of shelters and THs had to reduce capacity by up to 50% or more, to meet public health regulations. As the pandemic continues to unfold, the prevalence of domestic violence against women remains cause for concern.

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