The COVID-19 Pandemic and Gender Based Violence (GBV) in Canada (with some notes on Alberta)

The emerging evidence is that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender based violence (GBV; including family violence FV, which is intrinsically gendered) and adversely impacted anti-violence efforts worldwide (ACWS (Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters), 2020; Hankivsky & Kapilashrami, 2020; Peterman et al., 2020; UN Women, 2020; World Health Organization, 2020). The pandemic has disrupted funding and operations for diverse non-profits across Canada, including those delivering anti-violence services (e.g. counselling, shelter, outreach, housing, help with education and employment), perinatal home visitation, and settlement assistance for (im)migrant and refugee families (which cope with well-documented risks for family violence; related to pre-migration, migration and post-arrival trauma and distress).[1]

During the economic and social downturns of the pandemic, gender violence (including family violence) has surged across the world and also Canada (20-30% increase in some parts, although this data is still evolving).[2] According to the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS, 2020):

“Forced isolation may be harder to recognize during physical distancing. An abusive partner may limit social interaction with colleagues, friends, and family during working from home arrangements. Reduced accommodation options make it even harder to leave an abusive partner. Physical distancing makes it harder to stay with friends, and many landlords have temporarily stopped taking new applicants. Survivors may have been given frightening misinformation about COVID-19 by their abusive partner to control or manipulate them. Abuse tactics can increase or worsen in emergencies like this. This may show up in signs not apparent before – like bruises or burns, or in sharing about instances of sexual or emotional abuse. Most instances of sexual assault are from someone the survivor knows, and sexual violence may increase as families are confined in their homes for longer periods of time. It may be more difficult for someone in an abusive relationship to communicate during social isolation because their partner may be more closely monitoring or limiting their technology use. With children now at home all day, every day, there may be more incidences of child abuse happening in the home. Be mindful of communication that indicates signs of child abuse are present. If you suspect a child is at risk, you are legally required to report it. 1-800-387-5437 (KIDS). Abusive partners may withhold necessary items, such as hand sanitizer or disinfectants. Abusive partners may prevent survivors from seeking medical attention if they need it or find ways to control access to extended health benefits. An abusive partner may make the survivor go outside of the home. The abuser may blame her if she or the children get sick. Travel restrictions and fewer travel options may impact a survivor’s escape or safety plan – it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or access flights or buses. An abusive partner may use COVID-19 scare tactics to keep a survivor away from their children… may make it difficult or impossible for the survivor to work from home…may block their partner from applying for employment insurance benefits or other forms of COVID-19 financial assistance, making them more dependent on the abuser.”

Quarantine and lockdown conditions ensured limits on reporting and on response. There were widespread and immediate impacts on office-located, community-based and home-visitation service delivery as well. Family support services moved online, with phone and video conferencing.[3]

The prospects of online/cellphone FV screening or help seeking are uncertain where women are locked in with their violent partners within earshot. Connectivity, data plans, call minutes, comfort with downloading and using relevant apps, location (rural, urban, proximity to good signals/cell towers etc) all affect the extent to which virtual-digital tools can be deployed to assist those in situations of poverty, illness, immobility, violence, language/social isolation etc (Emezue, 2020; Ending Violence Association of Canada, 2020; Fryer, Delgado, Foti, Reid, & Marshall, 2020; Montesanti, Ghidei, Silverstone, & Wells, 2020). In addition, it must be stated that virtual connections, even when seamless, are not adequate substitutes for in-person communication and support for those already impacted by isolation.

With Indigenous community agencies and members, there has been a sorely felt loss of access to ceremony and in-person programming (Ending Violence Association of Canada, 2020). During professional meetings, Indigenous community workers have described to me how, amongst their clientele,  strictures around physical distancing trigger painful and raw memories of colonial laws that pronounced Indigenous ceremonial practices and cultural engagements as illicit.

Surveys and questionnaires illustrate that in Alberta the impacts are already severe. According to an e-newsletter from Sagesse IMPACT in April 2020:

“People are using paused family court system as a method to gaslight,[4] intimidate, control and bully. Clients are unable to complete full hour counseling sessions. Parents are unable to support child’s distance learning due to lack of technology, language of instruction, working from home, etc. There are increased and high rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness/ isolation . Agencies report on clients inability to access financial support or services without access to phone or internet. There is magnified caregiver strain and increased risk of abuse and mistreatment of seniors, children, youth. There is increased child and youth exposure to drugs in the home and barriers to childhood mental health services. There are challenges stocking shelters due to grocery store purchasing limits and shortages in rural areas… Although it is early, agencies and collectives have started to identify increased activity and/ or reports of sexual/ domestic violence in their community or networks. Estimated rates include: Approximately 20-30% increase; Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services has experienced a 51% increase in use of the Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence in the past month. Feedback on rates of domestic and sexual violence: Successfully closed Elder Abuse cases have had to be reopened. Agencies are noticing warning signs that were not normally present previously COVID 19. There is increased substance & alcohol abuse, increased depression and anxiety and feelings of extreme frustration with partners and children. There is ongoing pressure buildup in families. Some noted it has been quiet because victims are isolated at home with their abuser, but looking at France, the UK and the US, they believe we are only weeks away from the surge in the reporting of these crimes. When services moved to remote work, initially saw a reduction of calls coming in and an increase in cancelled phone sessions. Now seeing an increase in calls from informal supports calling on behalf of victims.”

In this situation, safety planning had to also change. Sagesse (2020:4) provides some suggestions to agencies on how those living in violence and social distancing can reach out for help when needed.

Encourage clients and informal supporters to create a code word/text/gif that can spell danger if received. Recommend to clients that they keep their phone fully charged at all times and on their person – always wear something with pockets. Create physical indications for neighbours – turning on or off certain lights, opening or closing of particular blinds, etc. Suggest to clients to maintain their routines and patterns – if they always check in with their informal supporters on Tuesdays at 10:00 a.m., encourage them to maintain that behaviour.

There are layered complications with situations of co-parenting associated with FV (Sagesse, 2020:5). There is a known risk of violence towards children and partners/ex-partners during exchanges and parent-child visitations (Fleury-Steiner, Miller, Maloney, & Bonistall Postel, 2016). Violence to ex-partners can occur even when visitation is supervised; supervising staff too may suffer direct abuse or fear and anxiety as vicarious effects of witnessing abuse (Cuomo, 2019). The risk of violence during exchanges can rise when social distancing has vacated public spaces and increased private isolation. Child support payments may be withheld but there may be no legal recourse.  While courts remain open for emergency matters, they are closed for routine matters, leaving mediation and arbitration as options for dispute resolution (uncertain how effectively these can be done over tele/video conferencing).

Coparenting during this pandemic may be especially challenging for families impacted by domestic violence. Co-parenting parents might adhere to different guidelines around social isolation and virus prevention leading to challenges and abusers might use this time to further perpetrate coercive control. Support individuals who traditionally exchange children in public spaces for safety (school, mall, etc.) to identify alternative spaces that are open, safe and comply with their parenting orders (grocery stores, police station parking lot, etc.) Support individuals to follow AHS guidelines and try to negotiate with the co-parent to do so also. Encourage all clients to keep a record of what has transpired. In cases where a client can legitimately prove their child is in danger, they should contact a lawyer to determine if this constitutes an emergency and the next steps. Client may also experience difficulties with support payments due to COVID 19. In cases like this encourage the client to keep a record of what has transpired. If they are the ones unable to make a support payment encourage them to communicate this to the other party, give as much notice as possible and seek legal advice around amending payments, if possible. Although the courts in Alberta are closed for routine matters, mediation and arbitration are still available and are alternative ways to resolve issues. In addition, the courts are open for emergency matters. (Sagesse, 2020: 5)

The impacts of COVID-19 may be especially severe for women living without legal status in Canada. Prior to the pandemic this population already “faced acute social, economic and health risks due to lack of access to healthcare, poor working conditions, employer abuse and exploitation, and the stress of living in constant fear of deportation. The current crisis has only exacerbated these conditions, yet non-status women remain largely invisible in the public health response and emergency support programs” (Quoted from Abji, Pintin-Perez, & Bhuyan, 2020). Undocumented migrants lack Social Insurance Numbers and have no access to emergency income supports such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefits and the Canada Child Benefit. Many women work in roles such as cleaners, support workers, cashiers etc and face increased risk of infection but with no social protection if they fall sick and cannot work. In addition, if women are dependent and in violent relationships, the threat of deportation keeps them from reaching out for help. Women face threats, intimidation, abuse and violence not only from intimate partners but also from landlords, employers and extended family, and others (Abji et al., 2020). In 2020, CAN$30 million were disbursed to meet the immediate needs of shelters and sexual assault centres.[5] This is welcome support. However, status eligibility restrictions may be in place although sometimes relaxed on the discretion of individual shelters. In any case, women fearing exposure and deportation may never attempt to access refuge or even counselling.

References

Abji, S., Pintin-Perez, M., & Bhuyan, R. (2020). In Canada, non-status women are being left behind. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/pandemic-border/canada-non-status-women-are-being-left-behind/

ACWS (Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters). (2020). How COVID-19 may impact those living with domestic violence. Retrieved from https://acws.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/2020-04-09_COVIDImpactOnDVToolsheet1.pdf.

Bhuyan, R., Osborne, B., Zahraei, S., & Tarshis, S. (2014). Unprotected, Unrecognized Canadian Immigration Policy and Violence Against Women, 2008-2013. Retrieved from http://www.migrantmothersproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/MMP-Policy-Report-Final-Nov-14-2014.pdf

Cuomo, D. (2019). Domestic violence, safe space and vicarious abuse: inside a Pennsylvania Exchange and Visitation Center. Gender, Place and Culture, 26(1), 59–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2018.1552561

Emezue, C. (2020). Digital or Digitally Delivered Responses to Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence During COVID-19. JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, 6(3), e19831. https://doi.org/10.2196/19831

Ending Violence Association of Canada. (2020). PANDEMIC MEETS PANDEMIC : UNDERSTANDING the IMPACTS of COVID-19 ON GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE SERVICES and SURVIVORS in CANADA. Retrieved from ingviolencecanada.org/ending-violence-association-of-canada-and-anaova-launch-report-on-findings-from-national-survey-pandemic-meets-pandemic-understanding-the-impacts-of-covid-19-on-gender-based-violence-services-and-su/

Fleury-Steiner, R. E., Miller, S. L., Maloney, S., & Bonistall Postel, E. (2016). “No Contact, Except..”: Visitation Decisions in Protection Orders for Intimate Partner Abuse. Feminist Criminology, 11(1), 3–22. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557085114554259

Fryer, K., Delgado, A., Foti, T., Reid, C. N., & Marshall, J. (2020). Implementation of Obstetric Telehealth During COVID-19 and Beyond. Maternal and Child Health Journal, (0123456789). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10995-020-02967-7

Hankivsky, O., & Kapilashrami, A. (2020). Beyond sex and gender analysis : an intersectional view of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and response. Retrieved from https://www.qmul.ac.uk/media/global-policy-institute/Policy-brief-COVID-19-and-intersectionality.pdf

Harsey, S., & Freyd, J. J. (2020). Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO): What Is the Influence on Perceived Perpetrator and Victim Credibility? Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma. https://doi.org/10.1080/10926771.2020.1774695

Montesanti, S., Ghidei, W., Silverstone, P., & Wells, L. (2020). Examining the Use of Virtual Care Interventions to Provide Trauma-Focused Treatment to Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Populations. Retrieved from https://covid19mentalhealthresearch.ca/synthesis/examining-the-use-of-virtual-care-interventions-to-provide-trauma-focused-treatment-to-domestic-violence-and-sexual-assault-populations/?mc_cid=982349bb6d&mc_eid=bd79cc214b

Peterman, A., Potts, A., Donnell, M. O., Shah, N., Oertelt-prigione, S., Gelder, N. Van, … Thompson, K. (2020). Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children (No. 528). Retrieved from https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/pandemics-and-violence-against-women-and-girls.pdf

Sagesse. (2020). Domestic Violence Community Protocols. 1–7. Retrieved from https://www.sagesse.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Domestic-Violence-Community-Protocol-COVID.pdf

UN Women. (2020). COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls. 10. Retrieved from https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/issue-brief-covid-19-and-ending-violence-against-women-and-girls-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5006

World Health Organization. (2020). COVID-19 and violence against women What the health sector/system can do. (April), 3. Retrieved from https://www.womensaid.org.uk/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-and-children-experiencing-domestic-abuse-and-the-

Footnotes

[1]Imagine Canada Sector Monitor: Charities & the COVID-19 Pandemic. Accessed June 15, 2020 from https://imaginecanada.ca/sites/default/files/COVID-19%20Sector%20Monitor%20Report%20ENGLISH_0.pdf

[2] Patel, R. (2020) Minister says COVID-19 is empowering domestic violence abusers as rates rise in parts of Canada. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/domestic-violence-rates-rising-due-to-covid19-1.5545851.

[3] Government of Alberta. (2020). Provincial Family Resource Network. Accessed on June 29, 2020 from https://tinyurl.com/y3nvnkft (web cache; the original page is gone). You can see the pdf version here.

[4] Gaslighting is a term derived from a play (later filmed) called Gaslight, depicting psychological control and manipulation in an intimate relationship. Gaslighting involves deployment of psychologically and emotionally abusive tactics that progressively disorient and destabilize the target, who is often, but not necessarily, an intimate partner. The targets of such manipulation can involve observers and bystanders as well as intimates. The gaslighter makes the target doubt their own feelings, perceptions, understanding and judgement. Perpetrators may play the hero or the victim, altering narratives and manipulating perceptions to deflect blame away from themselves and to extract advantage from social and legal situations. “Perpetrators of interpersonal violence sometimes use denial, engage in personal attacks on victim credibility, and assume a victimized role (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender; DARVO) to deflect blame … (p1; ellipses inserted) “Outrage management” is a term that represents a set of techniques employed by perpetrators that mitigate observers’ negative evaluations of both perpetrators and their objectionable behaviors…The perpetrator, in order to avoid facing consequences, therefore tries to mollify the potential backlash when held accountable for their actions … such outrage management techniques include casting doubt onto the credibility of the victim and denying the victims’ versions of events or reframing them so that they appear more innocuous. This closely mirrors the denial and personal attacks described by DARVO. Similarly, both outrage management and DARVO represent ways in which perpetrators actively try to explain away and manipulate bystanders’ understanding of abusive events. (p2; ellipses inserted) …For those who have committed abusive acts, the ability to influence how others perceive them and their victims is indispensable. Convincing bystanders that no abusive behavior took place (or that if something did occur it was not harmful) and that the victim is untrustworthy gives the perpetrator a clear advantage in both social networks and the legal system. If successful, the perpetrator can avoid blame and thereby avoid disadvantageous outcomes. The victim’s account is doubted and ultimately disregarded in favor of the perpetrator’s narrative.(p3, ellipses inserted)” (Harsey & Freyd, 2020).

[5]Status of Women Canada. (2020). Supporting women’s shelters and sexual assault centres during COVID-19. Accessed on July 16, 2020 from https://cfc-swc.gc.ca/fun-fin/shelters-refuges-en.html

“As part of the COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, the Government of Canada is supporting women and children fleeing violence by providing up to $50 million to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres in order to help with their capacity to manage or prevent an outbreak in their facilities.

  • Up to $10 million was provided to Indigenous Services Canada’s (ISC) existing network of 46 emergency shelters on reserve and in Yukon to support Indigenous women and children fleeing violence.
    • The funding is delivered through ISC’s Family Violence Prevention Program.
    • The amount for each shelter is determined based on factors such as on-reserve population, remoteness, and number of beds.
  • $40 million went to Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE), $30 million of which addresses immediate needs of shelters and sexual assault centres as follows:
    • $20.54 million to Women’s Shelters Canada to distribute to 431 violence against women shelters across the country
    • $3 million to the Canadian Women’s Foundation to distribute the funding to 93 sexual assault centres across the country
    • A further $6.46 million to 167 women’s shelters and sexual assault centres in Québec, through an agreement between Canada and Québec.”

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