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Why we can’t ignore sexual and domestic violence during the COVID-19 outbreak

Over the past week, our collective attention has turned to efforts to respond to and prevent further spread of the COVID-19 virus. Self-isolation, social distancing, and the closure of schools, facilities, and gatherings are all strategies that public health and government officials have identified as necessary to contain COVID-19, and, most importantly, protect those most vulnerable. For women, children, and others experiencing or at-risk of sexual assault, intimate partner and other forms of gender-based violence, these measures – while essential in preventing the spread of the virus – create a potentially heightened risk for violence and pose additional challenges for survivors in getting help. In addition, for the employees and volunteers working to support survivors of violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, these measures, while certainly necessary, create significant difficulties for an already under-resourced sector.

Research demonstrates that isolation, economic and employment uncertainty, crowded or precarious housing, and social disorder and disruption are all risk factors for sexual violence, intimate partner violence, elder and child abuse. Many of the measures necessary to responding to COVID-19 – isolation; closures of daycares and schools; the potential impact on employment and income; and general uncertainty, stress and disruption – are also likely to exacerbate these known risk factors for violence. For First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women and children, women with disabilities, newcomer women, and the 2SLGBTQ community who not only experience violence at higher rates but also face greater challenges in accessing healthcare, COVID-19 and the measures in place to protect against it raise concerns for safety and well-being on multiple levels.

Due to the need for institutions and organizations that provide services to women and children who have experienced sexual and/or domestic violence to respond to immediate public health needs associated with COVID-19, reaching out for medical, mental health, police, or community-based supports may become more difficult. Calling a crisis line for support may be made more difficult for women if they are isolated at home with a violent partner. Seeing a specialized counsellor to receive mental health support, or attending court to access a protection order related to domestic or sexual violence may be impossible due to closures and other restrictions. 

In addition to those experiencing or at risk of gender-based violence, the employees who staff community-based sexual assault centres and domestic violence shelters across the country should also not be forgotten. Because the services provided through these organizations are vital to the safety of women and their families, many will be looking for ways to continue to support survivors during and following the COVID-19 crisis. Having resources necessary to meet increasing demand, to purchase additional supplies for cleaning, or to adapt their spaces as necessary – many of which are small or shared – in ways that ensure people can remain healthy will be critical. Organizations already face significant gaps in funding, and many employees working in these organizations do so for very low salaries, lack health benefits, and will be facing their own challenges in accessing child care and protecting their own health; their ongoing dedication to ensuring that those experiencing violence can still access services should be acknowledged, honoured, and adequately compensated. 

Unfortunately, what we know about the prevalence violence against women and children tells us that such violence will continue even though our attention is turned to the global health pandemic of COVID-19. As our efforts grow to ensure we keep each other safe, it is important in the weeks and months ahead that the needs of those experiencing violence during this time are not forgotten, and the individuals and organizations on the frontlines working to support them and contribute to our collective health and well-being are supported. 

If you are in a position to make a donation at this time, consider supporting your local sexual assault centre, domestic violence shelter or transition house. Please visit our Getting Help page or sheltersafe.ca for information about sexual assault centres or shelters in your community. 

If you need support in seeking safety visit our Getting Help page or sheltersafe.ca for a list of 24/7 crisis lines, sexual assault centres, and violence against women shelters in your community.

If you are in immediate danger call 911.