Ending Violence Association of Canada hosts webinar on sexual violence and COVID-19

[En français]

On June 10, the Ending Violence Association of Canada hosted a webinar aimed at exploring the impacts of COVID-19 on sexual violence services and survivors.

Sexual Violence & COVID-19: Frontline Perspectives brings together eight frontline workers, advocates, and organizational leaders from across the country to share their observations and experiences related to the distinct challenges that COVID-19 creates for addressing and responding to sexual violence.

In addition to providing a snapshot of the ways COVID-19 is shaping sexual violence response in their own region and organization, panelists also spoke about its impact on specific areas of sexual violence response including specialized therapeutic counselling, crisis and support lines, hospital-based services and hospital accompaniment, professional development and educational programming, and sexual assault response teams.

This webinar was organized by the Ending Violence Association of Canada as part of a project (funded by Women and Gender Equality) aimed at coordinating national action against gender-based violence.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this webinar. In particular, we would like to thank our panelists:

Dalya Israel, WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre

Haley Scott, Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS)

Reem Girgrah, Sexualized Assault Response Team, Victim Services Branch, Yukon Government

Corrine McArthur, SIGN Sexual Assault & Counselling Program, Yorkton, Saskatchewan

Sheila Macdonald, Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Care & Treatment Centres

Dèby Trent, Montreal Sexual Assault Centre / Centre pour les victims d’agression sexuelle de Montréal (CVASM)

Jenn Richard, Sexual Violence New Brunswick (SVNB)

Rachael Crowder, Prince Edward Island Rape & Sexual Assault Centre (PEIRSAC)

To watch the webinar, please click on the video below.  

Please note that due to technical difficulties the introduction to the webinar is missing in the video recording. The video recording begins with the presentation from the first panelist.

Summary of Sexual Violence & COVID-19: Frontline Perspectives

Across the board our panelists emphasized that COVID-19 is having a significant impact on sexual violence survivors and services. The pandemic has required organizations to develop creative ways to continue to provide services for survivors while still following public health directives. During the webinar, panelists responded to the following four questions:

  • What are you noticing about the impact of COVID-19 on sexual violence survivors and services?
  • What is your biggest challenge right now?
  • What are you concerned about for the future?
  • What are some of the innovative solutions you’ve come up with to adapt to this situation?

The following key themes and learnings emerged from our discussion:

  • Centring an understanding of sexual violence as being about power and control is more important than ever.
  • Sexual violence was already a pandemic, and sexual violence services were already in crisis.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the impacts of sexual violence, and creates additional challenges in managing these impacts.
  • Maintaining support and services for survivors during the pandemic is the priority.
  • Decreases in those reaching out for support must be understood in the context of the pandemic, systemic inequality, and the pervasiveness of rape myths and misconceptions.
  • Digital and economic divides across Canada have profound impacts on sexual violence services and service delivery.
  • In the face of challenges, new opportunities and strategies for supporting survivors are emerging.
  • Maintaining connection, community, and conversation is essential to supporting survivors and frontline workers.
  • The biggest concern for the future is the ability to meet the needs of those seeking support in the months to come.
  • This is an opportunity to radically re-think sexual violence services and response toward models of support and service that challenge longstanding government and colonial structures.

Keep reading for a more detailed discussion of each of these themes.

Centring an understanding of sexual violence as being about power and control is more important than ever.

Panelists set the groundwork for our discussion by reminding us that sexual violence is about power and control, and that understanding how sexual violence is a power-based crime is even more important in the current context of the pandemic when people are experiencing an increasing sense of powerlessness and loss of control. As people feel increased powerlessness they may be more prone to use sexual violence to exercise power or maintain some form of control.

Panelists also emphasized the fundamental importance of approaching discussions about the impacts of COVID-19 on sexual violence through a lens that foregrounds how systemic inequality shapes experiences and impacts of sexual violence in different ways. Supporting survivors and providing analysis of sexual violence in the COVID-19 context requires consideration of how interlocking systems of inequality create different impacts for survivors depending on their position within these systems.

Dalya Israel, Executive Director of WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre in Vancouver, BC described efforts to articulate the ways these interlocking systems of inequality are shaping what sexual violence looks like during the pandemic. WAVAW developed a continuum of sexual harm specific to the COVID-19 context to help people identify and put words to some of the ways they may be experiencing sexual violence depending on their own resources and position during this time.

Sexual violence was already a pandemic, and sexual violence services were already in crisis.

Panelists framed COVID-19 as a pandemic that is being experienced on top of the pre-existing pandemic of sexual violence and gender-based violence. For sexual violence service providers, it was important to situate the demands the COVID-19 pandemic is creating within the context of the steady growth in demand for services that has occurred at sexual assault centres and services over the previous 3 to 4 years in relation to the MeToo movement. Prior to the start of the pandemic, counselling services were already at full capacity at many centres, and some had lengthy waitlists.

For those working and delivering sexual violence services in northern, remote, and rural areas, and in Indigenous communities, the pre-existing pandemic of sexual violence and the crisis in having resources to respond to this pandemic is especially acute. Reem Girgrah with the Sexualized Assault Response Team, Victim Services Branch, Yukon Government provided a snapshot of the distinct challenges of sexual violence service provision in the Yukon where there exist no dedicated sexual assault centres, and delivery of services is complicated by geography and limited access to a small number of hospitals and other supports. Corrine McArthur, Program Manager and Counsellor with SIGN Sexual Assault and Counselling Program in Yorkton, Saskatchewan spoke about the challenges she faces as the only First Nations counsellor specializing in sexual assault counselling in Treaty 4 territory, along with the 125% increase in calls for support following MeToo from survivors/victims.

All of the panelists expect to see a sharp increase in demand for support as the COVID-19 restrictions lift, and many are concerned about their ability to meet this demand given the pre-existing pressure on services.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the impacts of sexual violence, and creates additional challenges in managing these impacts.

Panelists spoke about the importance of remembering how the conditions created by the pandemic are concerning not only in terms of the potential for new incidents of sexual violence but also for the impact these conditions have on survivors trying to manage the existing impacts of sexual violence. Panelists spoke about how pandemic-induced anxiety is exacerbating existing trauma symptoms for survivors, and that how being isolated at home also means a disconnection from external supports that they could normally call on. Many survivor/victims may be requiring additional support to manage pre-existing impacts and trauma that are being more acutely felt with the added pressures of the pandemic.

Maintaining support and services for survivors during the pandemic is the priority.

Panelists emphasized that despite the challenges the pandemic posed their first priority is to continue to provide services to those in need. This requires finding new and creative solutions to enable the ongoing provision of services in ways that respect public health directives.

In-person therapeutic counselling is central to many sexual assault centres and services. To ensure ongoing availability of counselling, centres have shifted to phone or on-line options. This shift in the mode of delivery has required grappling with using new technology, managing varied access to technology, and figuring out polices and protocols related to ensuring confidentiality. As Rachael Crowder, Executive Director of the Prince Edward Island Rape and Sexual Assault Centre (PEIRSAC) observed, “critical feminist, decolonizing, intersectional, trauma-focused counselling is grounded in the relationship between the survivor and the counsellor;” the additional stress of the pandemic not only on survivors but also on counsellors and the requirement to deliver services virtually has made it important to find new ways to tend to the therapeutic relationship and ensure that frontline workers are supported.

Crisis and support lines also remain opened. Haley Scott, Collaborative Community Response Coordinator with the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS), spoke about how the text and on-line chat options available through Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Assault proved to be particularly important since the start of the pandemic. Alberta’s One Line for Sexual assault saw a 57% increase in call volume during the first month of the pandemic, and the on-line chat function was the most utilized mode of engagement on the line. Heavy use of the on-line chat option emphasizes the need for alternatives to traditional phone-based crisis lines during times such as this where people have little privacy or may be living with abusive partners or in other arrangements that make it impossible to talk to a  support person on the phone.

Maintaining hospital accompaniment services offered through many sexual assault centres was not possible due to restrictions on hospital visitors. Nonetheless, some centres found creative solutions: for example, the Newfoundland Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre continued to offer hospital support via phone within hospital settings. Sheila Macdonald, Provincial Director of the Ontario Network of Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Care and Treatment Centres spoke about how hospital-based services offered through Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programming have continued to operate by adapting as necessary to the changing conditions. This included SANEs wearing PPE and providing it to survivors if necessary, maintaining physical distancing as much as possible during exams, and creating a new information phone line to ensure survivors/victims know that the SANE programming continues to operate during the pandemic.  

Decreases in those reaching out for support must be understood in the context of the pandemic, systemic inequality, and the pervasiveness of rape myths and misconceptions.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, panelists reported seeing a decrease in the number of people reaching out for services as compared to the same time last year.

Panelists emphasized that any decrease in the numbers of people reaching out for support should not be seen as an indication that sexual violence itself is decreasing. Rather, the unique contexts of the pandemic coupled with existing systemic inequalities and the persistence of sexual assault myths and misconceptions create additional barriers for seeking support.

Panelists noted how messaging about the importance of staying at home had distinct impacts on those experiencing sexual violence and their understanding and belief that they would be breaking public health directives if they left their home to seek support. For example, as Sheila Macdonald pointed out, a decrease in the number of sexual assault survivors/victims presenting at hospital emergency departments in Ontario since the start of the pandemic must be understood in relation to broader fears that people felt about going to hospital emergency rooms and/or the belief that they should only go to the hospital if they had COVID-19.

Panelists also noted how systemic inequalities exacerbated during the pandemic also contributed to decreased demand for sexual violence services. Lack of access to technology and/or pre-paid cell phones and other economic barriers are a likely cause for the decrease in survivors maintaining connections with services or reaching out for support. For those already marginalized by poverty, homelessness, or other factors, the requirements of having the necessary technology and the additional complications in navigating resources are especially likely to contribute to their ability to reach out for support.

Dèby Trent, Director of the Montreal Sexual Assault Centre (MSAC) / Centre pour les victimes d’agression sexuelle de Montréal (CVASM), provided an important context in speaking about how fear of judgement, shaming, and blaming – fears that survivors/victims always face in the context of rape-supportive culture – were exacerbated for those who may have feared being questioned or blamed about whether they were adhering to the pandemic protocols when they were sexual assaulted, and that these fears would prevent them from seeking support.

Digital and economic divides across Canada have profound impacts on sexual violence services and service delivery.

Increased reliance on technology that has emerged during the pandemic highlighted for many panelists the harsh realities of digital and economic divides across the country, and particularly between northern/rural and urban areas. As the panelists emphasized, these systemic inequalities in infrastructure, access to technology, and internet connectivity have profound impacts on the access to services for marginalized and vulnerable populations.

To address the challenges posed by these inequalities, panelists described some of the innovative ways they collaborated with other organizations and corporations to meet some of these needs. In the Yukon, for instance, the Yukon Status of Women’s Council and the Yukon Women’s Directorate got together to provide pre-paid cell phones to survivors and service providers. In other instances, however, lack of internet connectivity meant that counsellors were required to rely on texting as a means of providing support – a modality that is not well-suited to therapeutic support for sexual abuse.

Panelists noted that the funding made available by the federal government to sexual assault centres has been vital in enabling the centres to purchase technology and provide technological solutions to meet some of these needs; nonetheless, longer-term solutions that address digital and economic inequalities are essential.

In the face of challenges, new opportunities and strategies for supporting survivors are emerging.

Despite the many challenges created by the pandemic, panelists talked about how new opportunities and strategies for supporting survivors are emerging within this context. For example, panelists working with survivors living in remote or rural regions and/or those who lack the financial means to travel for appointments have found that on-line counselling makes support more accessible. For survivors who struggle with anxiety, on-line modes of counselling have also been helping in relieving some of the anxiety that comes with having to travel for appointments.

Panelists felt that at least for the time being on-line delivery models for counselling will continue even after the pandemic restrictions lift. However, they emphasized that while it is important to acknowledge that these new strategies have the potential to address gaps and barriers to services for some people, they cannot be seen as adequate responses to the ongoing systemic and economic inequalities that exist that have created these gaps and barriers in the first place.

Maintaining connection, community, and conversation is essential to supporting survivors and frontline workers.

Panelists emphasized the importance of maintaining connection and community not only with those using their services but also for frontline workers and staff providing support services. Panelists identified numerous creative ways that they have done this despite the requirement of physical distancing.

Strategies to maintain connection to survivors and ensure that they know that services are still available include:

  • Sending out resources (colouring books, notes, etc.) to maintain connection
  • Creating blog posts and web-based content to provide information to survivors about how the pandemic might be impacting them
  • Creating new ways to foster community engagement through YouTube channels, educational videos, and on-line coffee chats
  • Developing extra tools (phone lines, chat lines, etc.) to support survivors in navigating services and addressing confusion about services being open or closed.  

Strategies to maintain connection among frontline workers, staff, and volunteers include:

  • Additional information sharing calls and network meetings to share information and brainstorm solutions
  • Developing new ways to support volunteers through virtual volunteer connection activities, such as volunteer skill sharing, online collective care groups, daily rounds and check-ins
  • More frequent clinical support to sexual violence counsellors and therapists, and dedicating increased time for clinical consultation and professional development

The biggest concern for the future is the ability to meet the needs of those seeking support in the months to come.

All of the panelists emphasized that they are expecting a dramatic increase in demands for services as the pandemic restrictions are lifted. As a result, the biggest concern remains the ability and capacity to meet these needs – a concern exacerbated by the pre-existing strain on services before the start of the pandemic.

Jenn Richard, Director of Strategic Development with Sexual Violence New Brunswick (SVNB), spoke about how relying on project-based funding raises concerns about the ability to provide services. While sexual assault centres, like SVNB, have developed creative ways of addressing funding shortages, for instance by developing professional development and training programs that they offer throughout their communities, the pandemic has also put these means of generating income at risk.  

In speaking of their concerns for managing an increase in demand, panelists also spoke about the challenges the pandemic creates for delivering training to new counsellors, support workers, and volunteers. While many centres are looking at ways to adapt training to on-line formats, this work takes time and will be difficult in the context of the ongoing pressure to provide services.

Stable, consistent, and core funding remains a key concern and need for sexual violence services to be equipped to respond to an ongoing increase in demand for services over the coming weeks and months.

This is an opportunity to radically re-think sexual violence services and response toward models of support and service that challenge longstanding government and colonial structures.

A final key message communicated by the panelists was the opportunity this moment holds to re-examine sexual violence service delivery models, and to challenge long-standing approaches that remain rooted in governmental and colonial structures. As Dalya Israel, Executive Director of WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre, observed, there is an opportunity right now “to take a moment and reflect on where we’re at as a society and really amplify the voices that have been telling us for a long time that there is no cookie-cutter approach.”

To this end, panelists pressed for thinking and conversations about sexual violence service provision that consider how current models exclude survivors who are most marginalized, and how it is important to think of sexual violence and sexual violence response as something extending far beyond government or institutional settings. Maintaining a focus on sexual violence as distinct from domestic violence is also important.

The following is a list of the additional resources discussed by panelists during the webinar:

Ending Violence Association of Canada hosts webinar on sexual violence and COVID-19
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