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Pandemic within a pandemic: national survey shows worsening gender-based violence

Anova in London, Ont.
Anova in London, Ont. via Google Maps

Those in the sector have warned since the novel coronavirus pandemic began that gender-based violence (GBV) was likely to worsen and that barriers to support services would increase, and now results from a national survey are validating those concerns.

In addition to shedding light on the experiences of staff, volunteers, and survivors, a report published Tuesday based on the survey results also suggests ways for Canada to move forward instead of returning to what’s described as a “normal” that wasn’t working.

Read more: When home isn’t safe: How coronavirus puts neighbours on front lines of abuse

The online survey was open from May 18 to July 20 to anyone across Canada working or volunteering in the sector or in workplaces that provide GBV-related services and was available in both English and French.

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The results were compiled by Ending Violence Association of Canada, based out of Ottawa, and Anova in London, Ont.

The co-authors, AnnaLise Trudell with Anova and Erin Whitmore with Ending Violence Association of Canada, appeared on The Morning Show with Devon Peacock on Global News Radio 980 CFPL at 8:18 a.m. Wednesday.

Of the 376 respondents, nearly half reported changes in the prevalence and severity of violence, almost all said they had to make at least one significant service change due to the pandemic, and more than a quarter of respondents expressed fear that demand for services could grow beyond their capacity.

Worsening violence and more barriers to accessing service

Forty-six per cent of respondents said that since the pandemic, there have been changes to the prevalence and severity of violence, with 82 per cent reporting increases in both.

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“I have seen an increase in violence and the gravity to a new level that I have never seen before,” read one anonymous quote included in the report.

One fifth of total respondents said they’ve seen changes in tactics used to commit violence, with abusers reportedly “taking advantage of the conditions created by the pandemic,” for example, misusing information about the pandemic in an effort to control their victim.

For those who are ready to seek help, many respondents were concerned about increased barriers and fewer available spaces due to new pandemic protocols. Almost all respondents, 99 per cent, said they had to make at least one significant change due to the pandemic.

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Respondents noted many survivors were suddenly spending significantly more time with their abusers with less opportunity to get out of the home, especially early on when more workplaces were closed.

“If one is at home with one’s abuser,” one anonymous comment noted, “it is difficult to phone or send a message (to support services).”

Read more: Canada is asking families of murdered, missing Indigenous women to wait for action plan. Why?

Health concerns surrounding the pandemic itself are also believed to be preventing some people from seeking help, with one anonymous respondent writing that they’ve seen an increase in calls to their crisis line “but at the last minute, survivors are changing their mind about accessing the transition house.

“I think there is fear among survivors of living in this type of communal setting at this time.”

Click to play video 'Grandparents of woman fatally shot in Brampton say they feared for her safety' Grandparents of woman fatally shot in Brampton say they feared for her safety
Grandparents of woman fatally shot in Brampton say they feared for her safety

Another respondent highlighted the frustration and sadness facing service providers who are struggling to meet needs.

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“The most challenging shift in my role is having to turn away women and children who have finally mustered the courage to flee.”

Many respondents also noted that having to move some services online or over the phone is of particular concern for women in poverty, who may not have access to a computer or reliable internet, or who don’t have enough minutes on their phones for counselling services, for example.

‘Which fire do I put out?’ Staff, volunteers are impacted too

While the report highlighted the resiliency and resourcefulness of staff, volunteers and survivors in adapting to changes resulting from the pandemic, it also shed light on the difficulties those in the sector are facing in trying to provide service in new ways while dealing with an increased demand and fear of COVID-19.

According to the survey, 84 per cent of respondents reported at least some concern about health risks while working or volunteering, while 90 per cent reported at least some negative impact on their ability to do their work or volunteering.

Read more: Federal funding falls short of need for anti-human trafficking programs: LAWC

Staff and volunteers are also facing more work-related stress, with 81 per cent saying their current stress levels are either somewhat or significantly higher than before the pandemic.

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“Which fire do I put out?” wrote one respondent.

“Each one is manageable on their own, but combined (with) everything all at once was incredibly overwhelming.”

Staff and volunteers also expressed more long-term concerns, with 27 per cent worried that the increase in need for services will continue to climb until it reaches beyond their capacity.

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Why amplifying women’s voices in the wake of gender-based violence matters

An opportunity to do more

When it comes to moving forward, the report authors identified four major areas where action is needed, based on the survey responses.

First, Trudell and Whitmore suggest that “stable core funding” would facilitate long-term and sustainable solutions while, secondly, additional funding and resources should be put towards prevention.

The authors also suggest the need for “intersectional, systemic approaches and actions” that acknowledge “the social and economic root causes of GBV” as well as the heightened risks for women in marginalized groups, including but not limited to those with disabilities; Black, Indigenous and racialized women; refugees; trans people; and sex workers.

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Read more: Broken: A Global News series on Canada’s ongoing failure to end violence against women

Lastly, the report authors suggest that going forward, there should be more opportunities for GBV staff and volunteers to share their own knowledge, expertise and lessons learned during the pandemic as well as “meaningful efforts by government to centre this expertise” in recovery plans going forward.

“I think framing it as a ‘return to normal’ is incredibly problematic, because our normal before the pandemic was not serving women who experience violence well,” one respondent wrote.

“I think we ought to look at this pandemic as a learning lesson in the bigger picture of gender-based violence… I hope post-pandemic, more policies and government initiatives are directed at preventing violence in the first place.”