British Columbia

COVID-19 exacerbated violence against women. Frontline workers want essential service funding

On Canada's National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, workers on the front line of gender-based violence say it's time that they be recognized as essential workers, and provided the funding necessary to do their life-saving work.

2020 pushed Canada's handling of intimate-partner violence, policing into the public eye

'What we want to see going into 2021 is core funding for front-line organizations that are doing the work ... to not have to worry about piecing together project funding or having to do fundraising events and bake sales,' said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women's Support Services.

Advocates call it the "shadow pandemic" — an upwards tick in violence against women as COVID-19 restrictions force Canadians indoors and out of the public eye.

And on Canada's National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, workers on the front line of gender-based violence say it's time that they be recognized and funded as essential workers.

"Since the outbreak of COVID-19, what we've seen all around the world, and certainly for us on the front lines, is that all types of violence, in particular intimate partner violence have intensified," said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women's Support Services.

"This is one of the most under-resourced service providers. What we want to see going into 2021 is core funding for frontline organizations that are doing the work ... to not have to worry about piecing together project funding or having to do fundraising events and bake sales."

A CBC investigation launched just days before the pandemic upended Canadian life found that women and children who were victims of domestic violence were turned away from shelters in Canada almost 19,000 times a month. 

And a national survey found that during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in Canada gender-based violence was more severe and more frequent, with abusers' tactics become more violent, and frequently deadly.

'Turning back the dial'

MacDougall said the pandemic has robbed women of many resources that allowed them to exercise independence and power — income, childcare, and a public identity — all while increasing domestic burdens like elder care and housework.

"We've been turning back the dial on gender equity. Women were already doing the bulk of the child rearing and the house care, and it's complicated by the work from home context," said MacDougall.

"For anybody who is experiencing violence in a relationship, that has intensified that."

MacDougall said what has been remarkable for the past months, is that women have still found ways to remove themselves and their children from violent relationships.

"That has been extraordinary, in what has been a time of a lot of precarity and fear ... women are leaving," she said.

She said early in the pandemic she spoke with advocates in China, who said it was critical to ensure resources were available, and could be accessed even in lockdown.

Canada's minister for women and gender equality Maryam Monsef said early in the pandemic that the COVID-19 crisis had empowered perpetrators of domestic violence, citing a 20 to 30 per cent increase in rates of gender-based violence in some parts of Canada. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's minister for women and gender equality Maryam Monsef said early in the pandemic that the COVID-19 crisis had empowered perpetrators of domestic violence, citing a 20 to 30 per cent increase in rates of gender-based violence in some parts of Canada.

In March the federal government pledged $50 million to assist women's shelters, sexual assault centres and similar facilities in Indigenous communities throughout the crisis.

But a recent report from Women's Shelters Canada has called for more funding — saying many organizations have had to raise their own funds to cover shelter staff salaries, which aren't high enough to retain staff to begin with.

Role of police

MacDougall said that organizations have been nimble in the face of the crisis, but the need to maintain physical distancing has forced them to pare back already limited services, like those offered to women in Vancouver's downtown eastside.

A recently-circulated video, which appears to show a man having sex with a woman on a sidewalk near the busy intersection of Main and Hastings streets in broad daylight as people pass by, has reignited debates around women's safety in the area.

And news that RCMP are now charging the common-law spouse of the man responsible for killing 22 people in April's mass shooting in Nova Scotia — who also had a long record of domestic violence — has triggered conversations around the role played by police and the criminal justice system in cases involving intimate partner violence.

"This is a difficult conversation to have because we always want to believe that police are a part of a woman's safety plan," said MacDougall.

"As we move through Dec. 6 and into 2021, this is a really good time for us to have in a very important [discussion] about the role of policing in gender-based violence and the extent to which police are a remedy or are a safety mechanism for victims."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Ghoussoub

Reporter, CBC News

Michelle Ghoussoub is a television, radio and digital reporter with CBC News in Vancouver. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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