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Topics: Justice | Health

COVID-19 brings new challenges for abuse survivors

Data released this month shows an uptick in online searches for domestic violence hotlines

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New data released this month suggests more Canadians were looking for hotlines supporting survivors of domestic violence amid the COVID-19 crisis and physical distancing measures.

Google searches in Canada for the keywords “domestic violence hotline” or “domestic abuse hotline” increased 101.54 percent from March to April, according to trends data provider SEMrush. Across Canada, there were 19,260 searches in February using a list of 41 different keyword variations related to domestic violence and assault. The number of searches using those same terms went up to 23,270 in March and further increased to 29,330 in April. Every province and territory, excluding Yukon and Nunavut, saw at least a 40-percent increase in these keyword searches between March and April.

Kaitlin Geiger-Bardswich, communications and development manager with Women’s Shelters Canada, says that while there are indications of an increase in domestic violence, some of these searches may also be from people wanting to help those being abused. Either way, it’s a worrisome jump. 

In April, Canada’s minister for women and gender equality Maryam Monsef told CBC News that consultations had revealed a 20 to 30 per cent increase in rates of gender-based violence and domestic violence in some parts of the country. Earlier this month, advocates sounded the alarm on an “epidemic” of domestic violence. The Globe and Mail reported that at least nine women and girls in Canada have been murdered since the pandemic began.

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The strain of being abnormally confined together at home, worries about finances, job instability, childcare needs, homeschooling responsibilities and staying healthy are all huge stressors, even for those with appropriate coping mechanisms. Substance abuse by intimate partner abusers can also worsen the risk of assault or abuse.

Geiger-Bardswich, whose non-profit brings together 14 Canadian shelter organizations, says physical distancing can be harmful in multiple ways to intimate partner violence survivors.

“Abusers thrive on control and can use COVID-19 as a form of manipulation to say things like ‘If you try to leave, you’ll catch the virus,’ or ‘I’ll tell your family and friends you have it so you have nowhere to go,’” she says. “Shelters have also seen an increase in calls from women worried that going to a shelter puts them or their children at a higher risk for catching COVID-19 because of the communal living arrangements.”

However, she says most shelters have plans in place to keep women and children safe from COVID-19. Some are putting women and children up in hotels, while others may require new residents to stay in their rooms for a two-week quarantine before mingling with others at the shelter, while still receiving full emotional support via text, video or phone from support staff.  

Talking to a support line or trained counsellor is an important first step for women to simply obtain information and care, but it doesn’t require a victim to immediately leave her partner,” Geiger-Bardswich says. Women experiencing domestic abuse often have their online activity and calls closely monitored by abusers, leaving them unable to seek help themselves. While there are ways to avoid being watched online, ensuring survivors have a predetermined escape or safety plan is critical.

“Intimate partner violence has always been a crisis and blaming COVID-19 is only giving abusers an excuse.”

Intimate partner violence can sometimes be difficult for family, friends or colleagues to detect. Loved ones concerned a woman may be experiencing abuse can watch for evidence of physical injuries or more subtle indicators like avoiding other people, cancelling plans at the last minute or regularly needing pills or alcohol to calm nerves. One of the best ways to support a woman who may be experiencing abuse is to offer regular “dates” away from the abuser to help the survivor discuss her situation, confirm she’s believed and not to blame, and encourage or assist her with obtaining information to create a safety plan or departure strategy. Neighbours or concerned citizens should call 911 if they hear loud fighting, screaming or sounds of what could be a physical assault.

Geiger-Bardswich explains that survivors stay for numerous and complicated reasons and leaving requires careful planning, since the risk of murder by an intimate partner increases once they leave the relationship. She fears that many women who are experiencing abuse may be waiting until physical distancing restrictions are lifted and infection numbers fall before they go to a shelter. That could create an influx of women and children seeking safety, requiring at least the usual amount of funding, if not more, for the shelters to continue helping survivors.

Ottawa has allotted up to $50 million to women’s shelters and sexual assault centres as part of its COVID-19 economic response plan. Geiger-Bardswich says the funding has been very helpful, but feels shelters will still be relying heavily on the support they normally receive outside of the pandemic funding. 

“Intimate partner violence has always been a crisis,” says Geiger-Bardswich, “and blaming COVID-19 is only giving abusers an excuse.”

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Jackie Gillard is a writer from the Toronto area.

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