On March 18, Prime Minister Trudeau committed an additional $50 million dollars to support women’s shelters, sexual assault centres, and other community anti-violence programs to respond to the unique demand of the COVID-19 crisis.
Here we take a closer look at why this funding is so important to sexual assault centres during the immediate COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath. We’ll also tell you more about the vital role that community-based sexual assault centres are playing in Canada at this time.
- Keeping up with demand for services. While it is too early to tell what the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will hold for rates of gender-based violence, research suggests that an increase in sexual violence is one of the likely impacts of large-scale crises, such as natural disasters, wars, and pandemics. Although the measures put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are essential to public health, increased isolation, social distancing, loss of income or employment, and other disruptions in daily routines are all factors that have the potential to create conditions where intimate partner sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence and child sexual abuse are more common. This means that sexual assault centres across the country are likely to see an increase in demand for services both during and in the short and long-term aftermath of this crisis.
Any increase in demand for the services offered by community-based sexual assault centres across Canada is concerning because many of these centres were already facing significant challenges in meeting demands for services even before the COVID-19 crisis. At many sexual assault centres across the country, waiting lists to access the specialized, no-cost counselling these centres offer are months and in some cases years long. Additional funding provided through the COVID-19 Emergency Response Plan can provide much needed financial support to centres so that they can find ways to augment their service provision, hire additional staff, or take other measures to ensure that those seeking support have access.
- Adapting current services and spaces: As with other businesses and organizations across the country, sexual assault centres may need to make changes to physical office spaces and methods of delivering services in ways that meet current public health directives. This means that sexual assault centres may need additional funding to purchase equipment or software that will enable counsellors to provide counselling and support through web-based platforms rather than face-to-face; to purchase additional cleaning supplies to ensure spaces are properly disinfected; to adapt current service delivery spaces – many of which can be small or shared spaces – in ways that will make it possible to maintain social distancing; or to adapt training and education programs that centres offer.
- Ensuring the viability of sexual assault crisis lines: Many sexual assault centres and provincial networks provide 24/7 crisis and support phone lines. During the COVID-19 outbreak, these crisis lines are vitally important as a way for survivors and others impacted by sexual violence to access support and safety when it is not possible to meet face-to-face. Additional funding can support centres in providing training and support for additional crisis line volunteers and staff or in taking other measures to ensure that these important support lines remain open to those who need them.
- Providing prevention, education, and awareness initiatives: Sexual assault centres still have a vital role to play in providing prevention, education, and awareness initiatives about sexual violence during and following the COVID-19 crisis. For example, it may be particularly important for sexual violence centres to continue to provide education on consent or sexual assault myths and misconceptions, or to deliver specialized sexual assault response training to social workers, educators, police, and other service providers who may also be interacting with sexual violence survivors during this time. Additional funding can support sexual assault centres in finding ways to modify their training materials or determine alternative ways of delivering training and education that align with current COVID-19 restrictions.
- Providing guidance and support related to accessing COVID-19 economic supports: Sexual assault centres do a lot more than you might think! In addition to providing specialized sexual violence support counselling, sexual assault centres — like domestic violence shelters – are often a refuge for those most marginalized in our society. In many cases, those who reach out to sexual assault centres may be experiencing a number of challenges, including poverty, unemployment, homelessness, substance use, and additional mental health concerns – all of which may be exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of those who visit sexual assault centres over the coming weeks and months may need to access some of the additional financial measures and supports the government is putting in place as part of its COVID-19 response. However, due to the challenges they are facing, it may be difficult for those in these situations to access information about or navigate various government systems and services. Additional funding offered to sexual assault centres signals a recognition of the complexity of the work these centres undertake, and the vital role sexual violence counsellors and advocates will play in supporting sexual violence survivors who may need to access new economic measures and supports put in place as a result of COVID-19.
- Strengthening responses to the needs of marginalized communities, including women with disabilities, who may be particularly at risk at this time: The measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may have an adverse impact for women with disabilities, immigrant, refugee, and newcomer women, the LGBTQ+ community, and others for whom access to healthcare and other supports can already be difficult. In addition, for many of these individuals the risk of sexual violence is greater than others. For instance, women with disabilities are two times more likely than women without a disability to have been sexually assaulted in the last year. Additional funding for sexual assault centres is essential to provide organizations with resources necessary to adapt their services in ways that meet the unique needs of sexual violence survivors who may be additionally marginalized because of ability, language, gender identity or expression, or other factors during the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Improving services for Indigenous women and girls, especially in remote and northern communities: As Indigenous advocates and organizations have been saying for years – and as findings from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls indicated – access to specialized sexual violence services is severely limited or non-existent in many Indigenous communities, particularly in remote and northern regions. Again, because of isolation, overcrowded or precarious housing, lack of employment opportunities, and lack of health care these are also communities where the risk factors for COVID-19 and sexual violence intersect to create significant challenges. Additional funding can support Indigenous women’s organizations as the experts in their own communities to adapt in ways that will support those experiencing violence while also ensuring precautions necessary to protect the spread of COVID-19 are in place.
- Ensuring continued support for survivors navigating the criminal justice system, and work in strengthening the criminal justice system’s response to sexual violence: Sexual assault centres and advocates play a vital role in supporting survivors within the criminal justice system. Sexual assault advocates often provide accompaniment to police stations or court to support survivors throughout the criminal justice process. They are also involved in important work aimed at strengthening the police and criminal justice system response to sexual violence through violence against women advocate case reviews and trauma-informed violence-specific trainings for police, Crown prosecutors, and judges. Additional funding will ensure that sexual assault centres have the resources for crisis intervention and support to those who may be facing delays, cancellations or are worried about their safety due to a change in court date or other protections, and who will require ongoing support as a result of interruptions in the criminal justice process related to COVID-19. It will also ensure that the vital work sexual assault advocates are doing to strengthen the criminal justice response can continue.
- Supporting staff and volunteers: The people who staff sexual assault centres across the country — like those working in health-care, grocery and convenient stories, public transit, and domestic violence, homeless, and other shelters and food banks – are on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis. While staff of sexual assault organizations are used to working under difficult and precarious working conditions as a result of unstable funding in general, the added pressures presented by COVID-19 and the need to adapt to these conditions in very short time frames can create added worry and stress. The availability of adequate funding is essential to for staff to carry out their work with as little disruption as possible and without the added worry of securing resources.
- Creating opportunities for sexual assault advocates and organizations to use their expertise: Additional funding provided directly to community-based sexual assault centres will allow these organizations to do what they do best: draw on decades of experience and knowledge rooted in their communities to create and adapt services in ways that speak directly to those looking for support during this difficult time.