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Family violence increases for 5th straight year in Canada. What’s behind the trend? 

Click to play video: 'Women’s rights advocates call on politicians to prioritize issue of violence against women'
Women’s rights advocates call on politicians to prioritize issue of violence against women
WATCH: Women's rights advocates call on politicians to prioritize issue of violence against women – Sep 27, 2022

Police-reported family violence has increased for the fifth consecutive year in Canada, a new report shows, and some experts are pointing to COVID-19 lockdowns as one of the major reasons why.

Statistics Canada released a report on Oct. 19 showing there were 127,082 victims of police-reported violence committed by spouses, parents, children, siblings or extended family members in 2021, a rate of 336 victims per 100,000 population.

“This marked the fifth consecutive year of increase,” the agency reported, with women and girls representing two-thirds (69 per cent) of family violence victims.

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StatCan also added that “the rate of family violence was more than two times higher for women and girls than for men and boys (457 victims versus 212 per 100,000 population).”

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The Legal Director for Luke’s Place Support and Resource Centre for Women, Pamela Cross, said the biggest reason for the increase in violence is the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures that came with it.

“That meant that women in relationships with men who abused them were suddenly with that abuser 24-hours a day, seven days a week,” said Cross.

“Even for women who had left the abusive relationship, perhaps they were exchanging their children at the public library for visits or perhaps the visits were supervised. None of those services were available,” she added.

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Cross said pressure on families increased during COVID-19 and many women in the private sector started leaving the workforce.

“They couldn’t manage to work from home and manage the children who were going to school from home, so there were economic pressures on families as well,” said Cross.

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In addition, women were reluctant to go into a women’s shelter because of the idea of living in close proximity with many others, and they were concerned about the possibility of getting sick with COVID-19, according to Cross.

StatCan said that in 2021, “police reported 114,132 victims of intimate partner violence (violence committed by current and former legally married spouses, common-law partners, dating partners and other intimate partners) aged 12 years and older (344 victims per 100,000 population).”

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It also marked the seventh consecutive year of gradual increase for this type of violence, according to the report, with the rate of intimate partner violence increasing by two per cent in 2021 more than 2020.

Eight in 10 (79 per cent) victims of such violence were women and girls, and the rate of victimization was nearly four times higher among women and girls than men and boys (537 versus 147).

Cross said that people need to keep in mind that the data StatCan is providing is based on police reports alone, adding that “only about 25 to 30 per cent of women report violence to the police.

“So if the levels of police-reported violence are higher, then we can form the conclusion that unreported violence is also on the increase,” she added.

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The executive director of the Canadian Center for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE) in Ottawa, Meseret Haileyesus, said there are many reasons why women don’t leave an abusive situation, with the financial aspect being one of the major ones.

“Women need to have a safe place first to leave an abusive relationship, but unfortunately we have seen that most of these women don’t have a lot of economic resources,” said Haileyesus.

She called economic violence “the hidden form of violence,” with 80 per cent of women in Ottawa, for example, reporting that “since COVID-19 began, their current or ex-partner has displayed more controlling, manipulative, coercive behaviours pertaining to their finances and economic stability,” according to a research study conducted during the pandemic by Haileyesus’ organization.

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The research study by CCFWE — dedicated to raising awareness of economic abuse — was used to provide a list of recommendations to the federal status of women committee on March 17.

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Some of these recommendations include the development of evidence-based, trauma-informed, survivor-centred educational resources, training for social service providers, shelters, police, health-care and legal services and survivors; free, accessible credit repair and debt remediation services for survivors; and, improving access to affordable childcare for economic abuse victims.

“We need to provide a funding program for women who want to leave their abusive situations. … But what we have is a shelter, a restraining order, a social support system of welfare or maybe disability benefits, but we women need something beyond that … something like a scholarship fund,” said Haileyesus.

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Both Haileyesus and Cross agree that major changes need to take place to properly address family violence, and the changes aren’t happening fast enough.

As StatCan shows, among victims in 2021, there was “a large increase in the rate of ‘level one’ sexual assault (sexual assault violating the sexual integrity of the victim) (+19 per cent compared with 2020), while overall police-reported violence increased to a smaller degree (+ five per cent).”

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Sexual assault with a weapon or to cause bodily harm in intimate partner relationships also increased compared with 2020 (+ six per cent).

“At the same time, ‘level three’ sexual assault (aggravated sexual assault) decreased (-12 per cent),” the report states.

In 2021, 90 homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner. Three-quarters (76 per cent) of these victims were women and girls. The number of victims of intimate partner homicide in 2021 was higher than in 2020 (84 victims) and 2019 (77 victims).

The federal government needs to implement a national action plan on gender-based violence. We should be declaring intimate partner violence to be a public health issue, to be an epidemic,” said Cross.

“The community has to understand the reality of the violence that happens in families.”

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