“Horrifying global surge”

According to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres:

“Peace is not just the absence of war. Many women under lockdown for COVID-19 face violence where they should be safest: in their own home.”

He went on to say that measures must be put in place to address a “horrifying surge in domestic violence” directed towards women and girls around the world:

“I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”

Calls to helplines in some parts of the world – Lebanon and Malaysia, for instance – have doubled; in China, they have tripled. Reporting rates to police are on the rise, even as women have nowhere to go.

Trouble at home

Everywhere, including here in Canada, shelters are full; many have had to decrease their capacity in order to meet public health social distancing requirements.

As Silvia Samsa, Executive Director of Toronto’s Women’s Habitat, said on TVO’s The Agenda last night, what shelters can offer women and children has been diminished by distancing requirements. While women can still find safety in a women’s shelter, they can no longer sit together in the living room or around the dining room table to share stories, which has always been an important part of their healing. Children must entertain themselves without the distraction of school, away from close physical contact with other kids in the shelter and without the benefit of support groups. Distancing means a counsellor cannot put her arms around a woman or child who needs immediate comforting.

In her April 4th Globe and Mail column, Elizabeth Renzetti wrote:

“People who work with vulnerable women across this country are worried – more worried than they were before, even. They’re worried about endangered women and their children, trapped in homes that are even more tension-filled than ever; they’re worried about an economic crash that sees their fundraising dry up; they’re worried about having to lay off their own staff members, when they were already working on a shoestring. But they’re also coming up with innovative ways of coping which they hope will outlast this crisis and might just provide permanent solutions for an overburdened system.”

Getting the job done

Just like frontline workers from cashiers in grocery stores to health care workers across the country, many of whom are risking their own health to ensure that the rest of us have what we need to get through the pandemic, those providing supports to survivors of gender-based violence have found new ways to do their jobs. Here is a nod to just a few examples of what is happening across Canada:

With six locations across the country, Nisa Homes is the first Canadian organization offering transitional housing specifically for immigrant, refugee and Muslim women who are vulnerable, primarily because of domestic violence. It has produced an infographic about how COVID-19 can affect intimate partner violence:

YWCA Canada is calling for a feminist response to COVID-19, noting:

“Globally, women, girls and gender-diverse people will be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and that will be the case in Canada as well.”

It is heading up a letter-writing campaign, calling for paid sick leave for all workers, emergency child care for essential workers and a $10 billion emergency fund for charities and non-profits.

Discovery House in Calgary has hired an artist to paint a mural in its shelter, working with children living there (one by one), to “create an atmosphere of hope, not fear.”

The Canadian Women’s Foundation is looking for donors for its Tireless Together Fund, which will provide supports for organizations assisting women and girls across the country.

Durham Region’s Luke’s Place has expanded its Virtual Legal Clinic so that a woman fleeing abuse who has a family law problem can access free summary legal advice wherever she is in Ontario and is posting summaries of family law decisions related to COVID-19 as they are made.

OAITH (Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses) has produced a number of COID-19 resources, including  one that lists education, mental health and entertainment ideas for kids, youth and caregivers.

If you are doing or know about someone who is doing something innovative to support survivors of gender-based violence, please share it here so we can all learn from it.

Where next?

Changes have to happen at the systemic level, too, if they are to be sustainable. The United Nations has made some recommendations for government action that are worthy of consideration and implementation:

  • Increasing investment in civil society organizations
  • Making sure judicial systems prosecute abusers properly
  • Avoiding the early release of those convicted of violence against women
  • Increasing public awareness campaigns, including some aimed at boys and men

These are difficult times for all of us, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It can be hard to imagine how something good can come out of such a devastating public health crisis, but all of us doing this work have seen great kindnesses and assistance already; whether it is an individual having a carload of pizzas delivered to a shelter, more lawyers than ever stepping up to do pro bono work with survivors of domestic violence or unprecedented media attention being paid to this issue. As Renzetti concludes her column:

“[i]n the long run, things will only improve if we learn from the creative solutions that arrived completely by accident. One crisis can help solve another.”

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